The Blue Jays offseason (re-)addition faces the challenge of pitching deeper in to ball games this season, something he’s struggled with in his career
J.A. Happ‘s Blue Jays debut went much smoother the second time around, and if the left-hander can stretch that Wednesday performance across the 2016 season, Toronto will be very pleased with the three-year, $36 million contract given to the 33-year-old in late November.
Pitching against the Tampa Bay Rays in game four of the season-opening series, Happ lasted 6.0 innings plus a batter. He allowed seven hits and two earned runs on the day, striking out four and walking just one. Happ’s only real trouble came in the fourth inning, where four singles loaded the bases but the damage was limited to just one run.
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This performance was good to see against a team like Tampa Bay early in the season, who I expect to put a lot of balls in play this season. Happ was certainly not missing bats at times in this start, but he made the right pitches when needed and seemed to be working very comfortably with Russell Martin.
The most encouraging takeaway, however, is seeing Happ throw six-plus innings on just 89 pitches.
Happ’s career high for innings pitched came last year with 172.0 split between the Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates. Even though he was absolutely dominant in Pittsburgh, he still struggled to work deep into his outings. This is something that I highlighted as a reason that 2016 could “go wrong” for the Blue Jays, if this problem became rotation-wide with Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez.
Thankfully, the first four games from the rotation leave the arrow pointing up.
While Happ has struggled with the depth of his starts, he’s also struggled with the number of his starts. In fact, last season was the only time he’d started 30 or more games and he’s only crossed 25 starts twice.
That 200-inning plateau is often confused with an achievement of excellent, but often it is simply an achievement of health. In 2015, 28 Major League pitchers reached that mark (with Mark Buehrle ranking 29th, just shy at 198.2 innings).
No, 200 innings should not be the goal for Happ. But 30 starts at 6.1 innings per start puts a pitcher at 190.0 innings. Shave an outing or two off that total, or even knock down the average length of start from 6.1 to 6.0 innings, and you’re still looking at the 170-180 inning range.
That is what the Toronto Blue Jays should be asking of J.A. Happ, and if his Wednesday performance is a sign of things to come, Happ should have no problem fulfilling his side of the bargain.
This is one start of (hopefully) 30-plus, though. A drop in the bucket and little more. But the early reviews of Toronto’s starting rotation are very encouraging.