The Blue Jays have ample reason for optimism regarding the addition of J.A. Happ, but his history of limited start length will lean on Toronto’s bullpen
Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ is a relatively known commodity at this point in his career. Or, so we thought. Prior to his late-season outburst with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, Happ existed as a consistently-flawed back-end starter. Even through his recent success, however, Happ’s inability to work deep into ball games has persisted.
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A month ago, we unpacked the adjustments Happ made in 2015 to drastically boost the quality of his outings, but length remains an issue. Even through his 11 starts with the Pirates, Happ managed to exceed the 6.0 inning plateau just once, being yanked after 6.0 innings flat in five of those 11 outings.
Looking back over the past five years of Happ’s career, you’ll see a pitcher who consistently averages approximately 5.2 innings per start. Not a horrendous average by Major League standards, but a bullpen that’s still without a shoo-in answer for middle relief, repeatedly going back to the well in the sixth inning will prove unideal.
I’m typically slower to heap praise onto a starter for being an innings eater and that alone. Perhaps the greatest value of that, however, is that they can consistently hand off to the power arms towards the back of a bullpen. Rarely does a Mark Buehrle need to hand off to a Jeff Francis or Todd Redmond for example.
So in Happ, the greatest challenge in 2016 will be working deeper into ball games. The 2014 season is the only selection from Happ’s past five campaigns in which he (just barely) averaged a full 6.0 innings per start, with totals of 5.2 IP/GS in 2011 and 2012, 5.0 in 2013 and 5.2 last season. For the sake of a not-so-related comparable, David Price averaged in the 7.0 region last year.
Shortening ball games not only allows for John Gibbons to be more selective with his relief choices, but also to play the matchups. Aaron Loup is due for a rebound campaign, especially in terms of his lefty-on-lefty game. Brett Cecil should remain a dynamic option on the back end, and if Aaron Sanchez returns to the bullpen to join Roberto Osuna, the late-inning options are just fine. It’s the fifth and sixth that are cloudy.
Happ does work as a painful pace on the mound. There will be some groan-filled, marathon games with him starting, but if he can continue to make magic with his fastball, the run-time could shorten to four hours.
Ray Searage kickstarted something with Happ in Pittsburgh, but his $12 million annual value to Toronto can’t be realized if John Gibbons is forced to shuffle out from the dugout in the early sixth inning each night.