In the unexpected fashion that his predecessor made his name on, Toronto Blue Jays GM Tony LaCava added to his rotation Friday night, signing left-handed starter J.A. Happ to a three-year, $36-million deal.
According to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, Happ wll earn $10 million in 2016, and $13 million in each of 2017 and 2018. He immediately becomes the only left-hander in the Blue Jays 2016 rotation, which already features righties Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey.
If no other rotation additions are made, the club will likely go forward with that group as its top-four, with Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchison battling for the fifth and final spot, while high-upside relievers Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna could also be stretched out to contest for the vacancy.
In Happ, the Blue Jays get a 33-year-old with five pitches who has long featured enticing stuff but has failed to perform as much more than a back-of-the-rotation arm in a nine-season major league career, occasionally battling his command and struggling to pitch deep into games with consistency. He’s bounced around a number of organizations, including a three-year stint in Toronto from 2012-14 when he made 50 starts and posted a 4.39 ERA.
It was a somewhat tumultuous Toronto tenure, as a crowded Blue Jays rotation twice forced Happ to log bullpen stints in 2012 and 2014, assignments the lifelong starter was never hesitant to share his displeasure with. He was also hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Desmond Jennings in a game against Tampa in May 2013, a terrifying incident that forced Happ to be hospitalized and miss nearly three months of action.
Last off-season, the Blue Jays traded Happ to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Michael Saunders. He started well for the Mariners with a 2.30 April ERA, but he slumped as the season wore on, logging high pitch counts early in ballgames and watching his ERA balloon to 4.64 by the end of July. But then something funny happened when he was acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline’s 11th hour—he became a beast.
Happ was phenomenal for the Pirates, posting a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts while striking out more than a batter an inning and pitching into the sixth in all but one of his outings. He was worth 2.1 wins above replacement (David Price posted a 2.7 WAR in his 11 starts with the Blue Jays) and didn’t allow a run in five of his starts.
Much of Happ’s sudden success was attributed to well-respected Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, who worked closely with Happ to tweak his delivery and eliminate inefficient movement. Happ began taking a more direct stride towards home plate during his delivery and raised his arm slot, which was intended to refine his command and increase his velocity.
The results speak for themselves. With Pittsburgh, Happ walked just 1.8 batters per nine innings after averaging 2.7 per nine with the Mariners. Meanwhile, he averaged 93 mph on his four-seam fastball in September and October—occasionally touching 94—after sitting in the 92-mph range with Seattle.
Another key to Happ’s late-season success was an increased reliance on that heater. While he used his four-seamer less than half the time in the first three months of the season, he started throwing it a ton with the Pirates, using it for 65.3 per cent of his pitches in the second half, which was the third-most of any qualified pitcher in baseball.
He backed off significantly on his sinker (which he relied on heavily during his first stint with Toronto, likely in an attempt to limit fly balls at homer-happy Rogers Centre), opting instead to use a cutter as his go-to secondary pitch, while mixing in the odd curveball and change-up to keep hitters honest.
Leaning more on his four-seamer—his most commandable pitch, which also features a healthy amount of spin and some unexpected late life—allowed Happ to work more consistently in the zone, earn more pitchers’ counts and get deeper into games. Of course, also working in his favour was a move to the less offensively potent National League, a handful of at-bats taken by pitchers, and an increased diet of left-handed batters in the NL Central.
All of the above conspired to make Happ look like one of the best pitchers in baseball over the final third of 2015. What will be key for the Blue Jays is finding out what degree of the mechanical and pitch usage adjustments he can carry over into 2016, and whether Happ has stumbled upon a new recipe for success a decade into his major league career.
It’s a fairly safe bet that Happ won’t pitch to a 1.85 ERA with the Blue Jays this season. But it’s a fairly safe bet that he won’t be as underwhelming as his 4.64 ERA with the Mariners was, either. He’ll likely fall somewhere in the middle, and if he can continue to build on the tweaks he made in late 2016, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him trend closer to the Pirates version of himself than the Mariners one. If that were to happen, and the durable-outside-of-line-drives-rocketed-into-his-skull Happ could make 30-plus starts with a low-to-mid-3.00’s ERA, he could be a shrewd value add for the Blue Jays.
And as a fourth starter making $10 million in 2016, with the best offence in baseball and a not-too-shabby defence behind him, Happ doesn’t have to be the world-beater he was with the Pirates. Take that 2.1 WAR he managed in a third of a season with Pittsburgh. If he produces that over a full season with Toronto he’ll be well worth his salary, and he’ll hold a higher WAR than any Blue Jay not named David Price produced in 2015.
Still, by committing $36 million to him over the next three seasons, the Blue Jays are banking on their former starter having discovered something during his layover in Pittsburgh. Now it’s up to Happ to prove whether or not they’re right.