J.A. Happ: Toronto Blue Jays 2014 Year in Review


Ever since the spring, I have been hard on James Anthony Happ. And that is mostly due to his inconsistency since his arrival from Houston in July 2012 as part of the Ben Francisco, Francisco Cordero trade that seemed to involve way more players than was necessary. At the time, Blue Jays fans weren’t sure what they were getting. Happ’s best season was in 2009 where he finished 2nd in RoY voting. Since then, he’s not been as effective. His seeming inability to throw strikes was beyond infuriating. Take one game in March for example. It was the epitome of the problem: J.A. showing a HAPPtitude for giving up walks. It was like an episode of The Walking Dead; “walkers” everywhere.

The Good:

But then something HAPPened this season. Happ put up 11 wins, which is one off his career high. He wa sworth 1.7 WAR. One could even make the argument that Happ was actually reliable for a 4th or 5th starter. He contributed 158 innings (2nd most of his career) and put up his lowest ERA in 4 seasons. His ERA was good for fourth among Blue Jays starters. Only Drew Hutchison‘s was higher. While we’re on that subject, Happ also tied #HutchShow in wins. 

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The walks that everyone (including me) has been complaining about? Well, he surrendered 51 one of them, but his 2.9 BB/9 is the lowest of his career! He picked up 133 strike outs in his 158 innings. 64% of the pitches Happ threw were strikes. He also threw about 1000 more pitches this year than last, a thought that would have scared me 7 months ago.

So, why the sudden change? Well, if we look at the pitches he’s thrown, we may get an answer. This year, he threw more fastballs (72%) and curve balls (12.1%) than he has in his career as well as fewer sliders (6.3%) and change ups (9.5%). PerHAPPs he has found the right mix of pitches. He has also managed to increase the velocity of his pitches with his fastball increasing from 91.1 to 92.7. It is not really clear exactly who to give the credit to, but either way, Happ has become more effective and realistic as a regular member of this rotation.

The Bad:

Even with his new found pitch selection, Happ still gave up too many walks and hits. His WHIP (1.335) is JUST below that of Mark Buehrle for highest. As well, even though he has changed the usage of his pitches, really, only his fastball is worth any value. In 2014 (according to FanGraphs) only his fastball had a positive value (2.1) in runs above average. 

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  • When Happ throws strikes, the results are a bit scary. Batters are making contact to the tune of 89.3%. Heck, even pitches outside of the zone are being connected with 74.9% of the time. All of this says that Happ must be perfect with his pitches. Such a reliance on perfection is the equivalent of walking a tight rope. One wrong move and disaster will strike. With such a small margin for error, fans are reluctant to throw their HAPP in the ring and commit to bringing the enigmatic starter back.

    The Future:

    Honestly, Happ has earned the chance to come back next year. Some will say that there is no room because of the young, exciting arms that are on the brink of cracking the big leagues. With Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Hutch, Stroman already set in the rotation, that leaves one spot for Happ, Aaron Sanchez et al to fight over. Ideally, Happ would slide into the 5th spot while the rest of the young guys prepare themselves in AAA. It would be a mistake to think that the Blue Jays have enough pitching to let Happ go.

    Next: Blue Jays Parting Ways with Bullpen Coach

    So, Alex Anthopoulos has to decide if he is going to pick up the $6.7M option on J.A. Happ. Considering the inflated cost of pitching and just how hard it is to find quality starters, it should be an easy decision to make. Can you find 11 win pitching for less than $6.7M? Probably not. The club certainly cannot feel comfortable enough with its youngsters to just decline the team option and fill the spot internally. AA has said many times that he wants to hoard pitching. So, it would be HAPPful to pick up the option.

    The only issue would be what HAPPens if and when Happ struggles and/or the young guys force a decision. We’ve already seen Happ sent to Buffalo. He’s said he doesn’t like it. He’s bordered on being critical of the team’s view of him. If he were a straight up free agent, he’d look for a club who is going to guarantee him more starts. But, he’s not. Yet.