J.A. Happ spot start impacting rest of the rotation


Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ will make a spot start agains the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday. Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday,Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told the media (h/t Scott MacArthur, TSN) that left-handed pitcher J.A. Happ will likely be given the ball for Monday’s start against the Philadelphia Phillies.

It’s not exactly breaking news anymore but we’ve been hearing for about a week that the Jays were considering using Happ for a spot start. They are near the beginning for a stretch of 20 consecutive games, which follows a cushy schedule in April that included four consecutive weeks with off-day Mondays. The schedule and good luck helped the Blue Jays to get through the first month of the season with the health of their rotation intact.

However the fact the Blue Jays chose Monday as the day to start Happ is a bit puzzling to me. Dustin McGowan will start on regular rest on Sunday but instead of Drew Hutchison following him, as he did last week, the Jays will send Happ to the mound against the hapless Phillies.

Hutchison, 23, is coming off Tommy John surgery but it’s been almost two years since he went under the knife. He’s never pitched more than 150 innings and most would agree was initially rushed to the Blue Jays back in 2012 when he was called up after making only six starts above High-A.

However so far in 2014 he’s been the best Blue Jays’ pitcher not named Mark Buehrle. Hutch is fourth in the American League with a gaudy 10.36 strikeouts per nine and has contributed as much value as Buehrle by fWAR.

Looking at his game logs, with all of the off-days the Blue Jays have been able to give Hutchison five days of rest between every start except between his first and second. It appears they want to continue this schedule, at least for the short-term but no one really knows how long the Jays will keep Hutchison on this rest pattern and combined with the question marks around Morrow and McGowan whispers of a possible six-man rotation have surfaced. You wouldn’t think it’s a realistic option but maybe it’s the Jays’ strategy to help their top arms last as long as possible without blowing up. Morrow has received five days of rest four times as well while McGowan has received five days three times and six days once.

Enter Happ, who was tabbed as one of the Blue Jays four starters before spring training began but a combination of a bad back and poor performance led to him starting the season on the DL. I’m not exactly a supporter of J.A. Happ but at the same time I think many fans have a bit of a misconception of him.

He’s never had very good command and tends to rack up his pitch count by not being able to put away batters with any kind of efficiency. He’ll throw at least 100 pitches every time out if he needs to but rarely gets past the five-inning threshold and will usually allow at least three or four runs.

That being said, he still has value to the Blue Jays as a swingman. That value may be mitigated a bit since the Blue Jays also have Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers who could likely fill a similar role but, roster construction issues aside, Happ has the best track record of the bunch so it makes sense why the Jays would go with him.

He was hurt during spring training, which means his poor performance should be taken with a grain of salt. In three appearances this year he has more walks (5) than strikeouts (4) so the command is still an issue but otherwise he’s pitched effectively enough in a very small sample size.

But what will happen after Happ takes the mound? What if he looks really good? Even if it’s against a brutal lineup, will the Blue Jays be tempted to continue to run him out there? Do they actually think it’s realistic to give their three starters (Hutch, Morrow, McGowan) five days of rest between most starts? Or have they just been taking advantage of a cushy early schedule? Why are they giving Happ a spot start now, rather than towards the end of their 20-game stretch when you would think the arms would be more tired Unfortunately for now, we’re still left with more questions than answers.