Why Blue Jays’ Happ could be one of top arms available at deadline

Toronto Blue Jays' starting pitcher J.A. Happ delivers. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The last time J.A. Happ was traded, the return consisted of minor-league starter Adrian Sampson, who was never considered much of a prospect and has appeared in exactly one big-league game since the Pirates sent him to Seattle three summers ago.

The next time Happ’s traded, the price should be considerably higher. Granted, he’s 35 years old now, but at this rate he’ll still be one of the most appealing starters on the trade market this summer.

Let’s start with some intangibles. Happ has been traded four times already; presumably a fifth trade won’t rattle him. He also has playoff experience, not only with the 2016 Blue Jays, but also with the Phillies, including two appearances in the 2009 World Series.

Then there’s his performance. He has pitched consistently well over the course of the last three seasons, but if anything he’s getting better with time.

Happ’s now striking out 28.6 per cent of the hitters he faces, a career high. That’s 13th-best among all starting pitchers, right alongside Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard.

Unlike most high strikeout pitchers, Happ doesn’t have an overpowering fastball or a wipeout breaking ball. Rather, he works by locating.

Right-handed hitters see change-ups and two-seamers away. Lefties see two-seamers in and sliders away. Everyone sees plenty of four-seamers, a pitch Happ routinely elevates for swinging strikes. By now, opposing hitters know what’s coming – it’s just hard to hit.

Take a look at how he uses his change-up, for example. It’s a pitch he uses almost exclusively against right-handed hitters, and one he prefers to locate outside. So far it’s working. As you can see below in green, he hasn’t left a change-up on the inner half of the strike zone all year long.

Happ’s four-seam fastball usage tells a similar story. He uses this pitch constantly, but avoids the very middle of the plate with it, as evidenced by the hole in the middle of the red cluster above.

Like any pitcher, Happ still misses his spots at times. Generally, though, his command allows him to limit those mistakes. Through 13 starts, he has a 3.71 ERA with 90 strikeouts in 77.2 innings.

Now consider that Happ’s earning just $13 million, and it’s even easier to see his appeal. On paper, the best fit of all might be the Yankees, but he’d only cost his new team $4.3 million in salary after July 31, allowing small-market teams to pursue him, too.

All things considered, how many trade chips are more appealing than Happ? Cole Hamels is a bigger name, but Happ’s now a more effective pitcher than his former teammate, who’s making $10.5 million more in salary and has extensive no-trade protection.

In fact, a look at the potential trade market for starting pitchers suggests Happ’s now as good as it gets barring a late addition of Jacob deGrom or a return to health from Chris Archer, who’s now on the disabled list with an abdominal strain. Among this group of pitchers likely to be on the market this summer, Happ leads in FIP, xFIP, strikeout rate and wins above replacement.

Name Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
J.A. Happ Blue Jays 77.2 10.43 2.55 1.16 3.71 3.43 3.38 1.8
Tyson Ross Padres 76 9.24 3.32 0.83 3.43 3.47 3.51 1.2
Clayton Richard Padres 88 7.26 3.07 0.92 4.40 3.98 3.63 0.9
Michael Fulmer Tigers 73.2 7.57 3.3 1.1 4.40 4.27 4.09 0.8
Marco Estrada Blue Jays 70.2 7.26 2.29 1.78 5.09 4.83 5.06 0.6
Francisco Liriano Tigers 57.2 7.02 4.53 1.25 3.90 4.96 4.84 0.2
Cole Hamels Rangers 79.1 8.96 3.29 1.93 3.86 5.37 4.28 0
Bartolo Colon Rangers 74.2 5.79 1.33 2.29 4.94 5.65 4.09 -0.3
Dan Straily Marlins 39.2 7.03 4.99 1.59 4.08 5.58 4.92 -0.3
Danny Duffy Royals 76.2 7.51 4.34 1.88 5.28 5.64 5.29 -0.3

The demand for starting pitching already exists thanks to the likes of the Yankees, Mariners and Nationals. More teams will likely join that group between now and July 31, when starters underperform or get injured.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays will be sellers barring a rapid surge in the standings, and should be motivated to make a deal for young talent before Happ hits free agency this fall. When they do, they’re positioned to get much more than Adrian Sampson in return.

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