TORONTO – Realistically, J.A. Happ‘s 2016 season will be tough to top. Not only did he win 20 games, he pitched 195 innings with a 3.18 ERA. By any measure, it was a great year.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Happ’s 2017 numbers aren’t as gaudy. After Thursday’s 1-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals, he’s 9-11 with a 3.64 ERA.
An early season elbow injury sidelined him for more than a month, so he won’t come close to matching last year’s innings total, but on a per-inning basis, he has been every bit as effective as he was last year.
While Happ’s ERA has risen slightly, his underlying numbers have stayed steady. The back-of-the-baseball-card stats might look different, but healthy, Happ has essentially been just as tough on opposing hitters as he was last year.
“You always want to finish strong, and I definitely feel strong right now,” Happ said. “You’d like to carry that, finish out the year strong and hopefully bring that confidence into the following season.”
That’s three really productive seasons in a row for Happ, who began the 2015 campaign in Seattle before finishing strong with the Pirates. The Blue Jays will be hoping for a fourth in 2018, when Happ joins Marcus Stroman, the newly extended Marco Estrada and Aaron Sanchez in the Toronto rotation. Based on what Happ has shown in 2017, that’s a realistic possibility.
“He’s thrown the ball just like he did last year, really,” manager John Gibbons said. “He’s starting to get the feel for (his two-seam fastball) a little more. Other than that he’s been the same guy. He had to get built up once he came back (from the disabled list). Since then he’s having a nice season.”
Happ turned in another stellar performance Thursday, pitching 6.2 innings of one-run ball while striking out six and walking two. He generated 15 swinging strikes on a night his fastball topped out at 96 m.p.h. With catcher Luke Maile calling for a mix of two- and four-seam fastballs behind the plate, Happ kept the Royals guessing.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, the Royals had an effective veteran lefty of their own on the mound. Jason Vargas pitched 6.1 scoreless innings against the Blue Jays, who fell to 71-82 on the season with a loss that assures them of a losing record.
“We’re still competing,” Happ said. “It doesn’t matter what the standings say. You still want to beat that team. You want to win ball games, be there for your team and pitch well.”
Toronto’s lineup combined for just two hits, offering yet another reminder that this lineup isn’t where it needs to be. As Gibbons said, “We didn’t hit a lick.”
To that end, a corner outfielder and a versatile bat capable of playing the infield will be on the Blue Jays’ off-season wish list (maybe even a switch-hitter, as long as everything’s on the table).
The result was ultimately disappointing for the Blue Jays on Thursday, but there’s a silver lining for those inclined to look ahead. With each passing start, Happ provides more reason to believe that the success of 2016 won’t be limited to just one season.