DUNEDIN, Fla. -- After a disappointing start against the Angels on Sept. 12, J.A. Happ went to manager John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker in search of something -- anything, really -- to get him back on track.
Happ's season had already been derailed by injuries, specifically the severely sprained right knee he sustained when he went down after being struck in the head by a line drive on May 7 at Tropicana Field. In eight starts after his return, the left-hander went 2-4 with a 5.36 ERA. The final straw was that outing against the Angels, as he gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings.
Happ said on Wednesday that he could remember telling Walker and Gibbons, basically, "I want to try to get over the hump."
"I was just battling through some tough games and I felt like I was so close and the results weren't necessarily matching up to the way I was doing things," Happ said. "I needed to take a look and see if there was anything I could change to just try to turn the tides a little bit."
Their suggestion was a slight alteration of Happ's mechanics, moving his arm slot down a few inches from the over-the-top delivery he had been using. Happ said he was willing to give it a shot, and so far, he and the Blue Jays have been encouraged by what they've seen.
It's a small sample size that may not truly represent what Happ will be in 2014, but in his final three starts, Happ posted a 2.33 ERA and struck out 16 batters while walking seven in 19 1/3 innings. Happ said his first bullpen session of the spring went well, too, and Gibbons believes it will help out the 31-year-old lefty when he starts facing hitters.
"It's freeing my arm up, and my arm's working a little bit better. I'm not fighting myself trying to get over the top with my higher arm slot," said Happ, who figures to be Toronto's fourth starter this season. "It's something we're working on, I worked on it all offseason, starting to feel more and more comfortable. I like the way it feels as far as it feels a little more free.
"It just feels like my arm works a little bit better. It's out here and it feels like it's coming out with a little more ease. It feels a little more fluid, I guess."
Happ noted that he didn't want to make too big of a deal out of what he changed, as it seems like everyone reports to Spring Training with a new pitch, delivery, stance, approach and so on. He even joked that his arm might only feel fresh and his delivery more fluid because it's the first week of Spring Training.
"We're going to try to go with it," Happ said. "I think the coaching staff's on board, definitely. I think they like the direction it's headed."
The idea behind the change was that Happ's over-the-top delivery often caused him to miss too high or low. That either left Happ's pitches right where hitters want it, or so low that they could recognize it was out of the strike zone in time to take the pitch for a ball. By throwing from a lower angle, Happ can focus more on his location within the strike zone and force hitters to make a quicker decision.
"I like everything I see about it," Gibbons said. "Happ's big thing has always been command issues, walking guys or falling behind in the count. His problems were either up or down. Guys who come right over the top, that's where they run into trouble. We dropped him down just a little bit and now all he has to worry about is in and out.
"I thought he looked 100 percent better at the end of last year and then he looked good again [in the bullpen on Tuesday.]"
Something else looked good and "felt great" in that side session: Happ's knee. He threw off a mound for the first time on Tuesday without supportive tape on his knee, having been cleared to do so during his physical when pitchers and catchers arrived, and reported back with no issues.
Happ said several times last year that he was fortunate to have avoided a more serious injury when Desmond Jennings' line drive struck him just behind his left ear, and he said on Wednesday that he was glad to put even more time between himself and those injuries over the offseason as he prepared for this year.
"I feel good about where I'm at," Happ said. "I feel good. If I go out there, stay healthy and execute, I'm going to help the staff out. I feel good about my spot there."