Blue Jays manager John Gibbons seems content with J.A. Happ in rotation


From left to right: Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, GM Alex Anthopoulos, President Paul Beeston and play-by-play commentator Buck Martinez. Credit: Michael Wray

On Wednesday night, the Toronto Blue Jays hosted their annual State of the Franchise event for season ticket holders and members of the media. As I’m extremely late getting this post up the evening has already been recapped quite thoroughly elsewhere (links below). So in the spirit of attempted creativity, I’m going to focus primarily on one answer given by Blue Jays’ manager John Gibbons.

Before we get started, I want to take a brief moment to thank the Blue Jays for inviting us as they did an excellent job hosting this year’s affair. In what I’m sure was a cognitive move my the organization, I sat down quite relaxed after helping myself to everything from fish tacos to meatball sliders (not to mention an open-bar) for a good 40 minutes.

I found the questions selected to be fair but as expected most of the answers from the Blue Jays brass were vague and didn’t offer a tremendous amount of substance. However one response that I did find intriguing came from Gibbons when he briefly discussed a small mechanical change for left-handed pitcher J.A. Happ.

I’ve been critical of Happ in the past and still think the Blue Jays may be best served to move him. It would shed only a small amount of payroll ($5.2M) but would make the net difference of adding through free agency less, at least for this year (and potentially next, as Happ has a $6.7M team option for 2015).

When Gibbons was asked by a season ticket holder to name the individual players he expects to see the most improvement from this season, one of the names he mentioned was Happ. The reason given by Gibby was fairly interesting, at least to me and no, it wasn’t because he started off by referring to J.A. as “A.J.” before quickly correcting himself, which I’m sure helped further fan the flames of recent A.J. Burnett to Toronto rumours.

As much as I’ve harped on Happ, when Gibbons talked about a small mechanical change to his delivery my ears perked up a bit. Happ has traditionally thrown from an over the top arm position but some late season success throwing out of a slightly lower, more 3/4 arm slot. I had missed it at the time but Happ talked about the change in a Toronto Sun article after his final start of the season. This is what he had to say at the time:

"“It’s helped with my command being a little more consistent,” he said. “The ball is coming out a little bit better. The best thing is that it doesn’t feel like I’m needing to give it as much effort, you know, grunting and giving it 100% trying to get the ball where I wanted it. This arm slot allows me to a be a little more free, a little more smooth and it’s more comfortable. “Normally changing your mechanics takes a long time but this wasn’t as big of a change. It’s probably just a few inches of change. But I was ready to try something. I knew it didn’t need to be that hard and it feels good to have some success.”"

Gibbons mentioned on Wednesday he felt the adjustment gave Happ better movement on his pitches while at the same time helping to improve his control and command. It all sounds good to me, but is it true?

I watched a bit of video of Happ’s starts and compared footage from April to his last start in September. I wasn’t able to pick up much of a difference visually but like J.A. said it was a minor change. So instead I decided to compare his vertical and horizontal release points on his Brooks Baseball page, which helps us determine if he’s throwing out of a slightly lower, wider 3/4 arm slot.

And sure enough, it appears he is. It’s not much of a difference, like Happ said maybe a few inches. But will this minor change be a turning point in the 31-year-old lefty’s career?

I’m skeptical and because he implemented the change so late in the season it’s very difficult to tell how much of an impact it made due to the small sample size. I could try to watch an entire game (or a few more innings) with the hope of determining whether or not his command was in fact better, but it sounded like a colossal waste of time for a potentially fruitless endeavour.

Happ did struggle with control for most of the season and walked 4.4 batters per nine in 2013. That was a bit higher than his already mediocre 4.0 BB/9 career average. If we look at just his last three starts, he walked seven batters over 19.1 IP, which works out to 3.3 BB/9. However as is the problem with all small sample sizes, that number is hard to trust because it can be so easily skewed in only a handful of plate appearances.

However, it is worth noting that across his last three starts of the 2013 season Happ was able to lower his ERA from 5.15 to 4.56. Before the game he was struck in the head with a line drive, he his ERA was 3.98. His FIP for the first month of the season was very similar at 4.01. The league average ERA in the AL was 3.99 in 2013, which basically means if Happ can pitch to an ERA of four or better in 2014 he would be pitching more effectively than half of the pitchers in the American League. Looking at starter ERA, the bar is set even lower – the league average starter ERA in the AL was 4.15 in 2013.

Anthopoulos told us at the Buffalo Bisons luncheon that he expects Happ to be in the starting rotation to begin the year (which needs to be taken with a grain of salt based on what we heard about Ricky Romero last year) but I think it’s fair to say Happ carries substantially less risk than Romero.

So when it comes to Happ, am I coming around a bit to the idea of having him in the Blue Jays 2014 starting rotation? Possibly. ZiPS is projecting his WAR to be only 0.9 and a FIP- of 110, which does force me to come back down to Earth a bit. To help put those poor projections in perspective, ZiPS is giving a slight edge to LHP Sean Nolin, who is still a prospect and was shelled in his only appearance last season.

Regardless, until the Blue Jays decide to make a move (or not) I’m trying my best to remain hopeful about the ability of J.A. Happ.


Blue Jays State of the Franchise 2014 Links:

Sportsnet – Blue Jays ask frustrated fans to stick by team (with full 30 minute video)
The Blue Jay Hunter – Takeaways from the Blue Jays State of the Franchise
Blue Jays Plus – State of the State of the Franchise – Health biggest key for Blue Jays as season nears
CBC Sports – Blue Jays ask fans to keep faith at State of the Franchise
Toronto Star – Blue Jays fans getting anxious over quiet off-season: Griffin
Canadian Baseball Network – Anthopoulos & Co. talk 2014
Toronto Sun – No panic from Blue Jays’ front office
Yahoo! Sports – Blue Jays looking to install real grass playing surface by 2018
National Post – Toronto Blue Jays fans question team’s off-season idleness at State of the Franchise event
Blue Jays From Away – State of the Onion: It Has Layers
Tip of the Tower – Toronto Blue Jays: State of the Franchise recap