It turns out that J.A. Happ gets fired up about a lot of things. He’s sitting in the dugout, legs so long that his knees are above waist level, and his blue eyes are fixed on the field. “Double plays,” he says, smiling. “I love those. And strikeouts. When we hit home runs. When we score. When we throw a guy out. When we make a big play in the outfield.” He’s just getting started with his list.
If it comes as a surprise that the Blue Jays left-hander gets excited it’s because Happ’s demeanour on the mound betrays none of it. He’s emotionless to the point that his good friend and teammate R.A. Dickey is convinced “he’s a cyborg: part human, part robot.” When Happ works, it doesn’t matter whether he’s tossing a no-hitter or getting lit up for eight earned runs—his facial expressions and body language are the same. Teammates call him “Steady Eddie.” But as catcher Josh Thole puts it, “There’s a hidden fire in there—you’ll just never see it.”
This is something Happ is hopeful people can recognize: He’s intense and competitive, even if he doesn’t show it. And as the best season of his career draws to a close, the intensely shy and private 33-year-old is trying to enjoy the attention that comes with being a Cy Young candidate, because he knows he ought to. It’s been a remarkable run for a pitcher whose last stint in Toronto was quite the opposite, and that’s because version two of J.A. Happ is vastly different. That calm and confident man you see on the mound wasn’t always that way.
Sue and Jim Happ met in grade school in tiny Peru, Ill., and they raised their son and two daughters in that same farming town, two hours southwest of Chicago, where they’re known as the family that founded Mertel Gravel Company. They tried to sign James Anthony up for T-ball when he was four, but their youngest was too shy and didn’t want to play. At five, he was ready. Always the biggest kid in his class and on his team, J.A.—who chose that name, pronounced “Jay,” in first grade—was the natural choice for pitcher as soon as he transitioned from T-ball to baseball. “He was four inches taller than all the other kids when he went to preschool,” Sue says. He grew so consistently that he never had a big spurt, she adds. “J.A. was always spurting.”
Happ was an emotional player growing up, and he’d cry after Little League games. “I would get very frustrated if I gave up a hit or struck out,” he says, that Midwest accent still discernable. “I struggled dealing with that. I had a lot of expectations for myself, even at that young age. I didn’t feel like I should ever get out. That’s not realistic—that’s just what was in my head.”
That competitive nature saw him practising either baseball or basketball in any spare moment. Starting from age three, he’d dribble around chairs his dad set up in their house, or shoot on a tiny basket from predetermined spots on the basement floor while Jim timed him.
Basketball was Happ’s first love, in part because his dad played in college. Happ had a Larry Bird poster hanging above his extra-long twin bed as a kid, and even sat out a year of baseball the summer before his freshman year of high school to play on a travelling basketball team. He’s still the all-time leading scorer at his high school, St. Bede Academy. But as he got older, baseball became the priority, because he was better at it. Sue remembers dinner wrapping up and her son disappearing to the yard with a glove and a ball in his hand, waiting patiently. “His father and I would always look at each other and just shake our heads,” she says. Then Jim would put on his shoes, grab his glove, go outside and get down into a crouch.
After baseball coaches at Northwestern University invited Happ to a summer camp as a high-school player, he put all his energy into pitching. By then he was getting pretty good at controlling his emotions, too. They were under wraps completely by the time he was a history major and pitcher at Northwestern. Unless, of course, he was playing a board game. “Then you really see his emotions,” Sue says.
But Happ will be the first to admit there are times he snaps at work. It hasn’t happened much this season, thanks largely to an ERA below 3.30, but there are times he’ll retreat to the tunnel that connects the dugout to the clubhouse and he’ll throw his glove. He’ll yell. He might pummel the punching bag the Blue Jays have hanging there for moments just like these. “If I’m consistently not gonna make adjustments, that’s when I get the most frustrated,” Happ says. “I used to be a lot worse at it, blowing up the tunnel. But there’s stuff that goes down there that is not safe for the camera, and you don’t want to let the other team know you’re frustrated. So if I need to let out some steam, it’s there.”
That’s the lesson his father taught him when he was a Little Leaguer: Don’t give the opposition any indication you’re struggling. Happ thinks that’s why he’s dispassionate on the mound today: Slowly, he learned to mask his feelings while he was at work. “I would get really upset, and I just morphed into the opposite of that,” he says, shrugging, like it’s that easy. “You never want to get too high or too low.”
Dickey is convinced it’s genetic. “It’s very hard to control your emotions the way he’s able to,” the knuckleballer says. “It’s a gift.”
The disposition of the towering, bald pitcher with the very white teeth and the massive shoulders hasn’t changed since he last played for Toronto two seasons ago, when he had a 4.22 ERA in 26 starts. Now, as then, he talks to his 91-year-old grandmother, Jean (he calls her “Bushia,” which is Polish for “grandma”), after every start. He says his stuff hasn’t changed much, either. The difference today is consistency. “His pitching is as consistent as his personality off the field—he’s very even,” says catcher Russell Martin, who sits beside Happ in the clubhouse.
Reliever Jason Grilli has been Happ’s teammate only a few months, but it didn’t take the veteran long to pick up on the role played by the most consistent pitcher on the roster. “If we’re a band, he’s keeping the beat,” the right-hander says. “You don’t need to be flashy. I’ll take the guy with zero personality who knows what his business is about.” (Grilli means no personality on the field. He and Happ have great chats over meals.)
If you ask Happ, he did sort of expect this season to go as well as it has for him. “I want to say, ‘Yeah,’” he says, nodding. Three years ago, he sat down with Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “I told him, ‘I’m right here,’” Happ says, putting his left hand at eye level. “I see these other guys who are up here,” he says, shifting his hand up, “and I don’t think there’s that big of a gap. I think I can be this guy up here.”
In Pittsburgh last season, Happ became that guy up there, going 7-2 with a sparkling 1.85 ERA. It came partly because of a few simple changes to his mechanics—no new ideas, just going back to things he was getting away from. Much of the change was ensuring his momentum was going toward home plate. “My leg would kind of open like a gate from lifting from the mound, over through first, to home,” he says, mimicking the motion from his seat in the dugout. “I need to lift up and go straight toward home.”
Happ worked on keeping his back leg tall rather than relaxing it, to give him a better angle on the ball. Some batters say that angle puts a shadow on the ball and makes it appear smaller than it really is. What Martin sees most from his vantage point behind the plate, though, is Happ’s supreme confidence. “He’s being the aggressor on the mound,” the veteran catcher says. “He doesn’t look like he’s aware or fearful of contact. That’s really difficult, to get to that place. He’s attacking hitters, getting strike one as fast as he can.”
Happ’s arsenal of a sinker, four-seamer, slider, curve and change makes for quite the combination. “He gets a ton of strikeouts by using the top of the zone with that four-seamer,” says Martin. “It comes at you kind of like an arrow.”
But the biggest change in his approach from his last stint with the Blue Jays, Happ says, is mental. “I’m trusting myself more.” He used to do a ton of scouting and take notes before games, but now he’s scouting with his eyes, not overthinking. He’s also been talking to himself on the mound lately—not usually out loud, but in his head. “Stay back,” he’ll tell himself. Or, “Get your arm going.” Or, “Let’s focus here—you’re one pitch away.”
“It really makes a difference,” Happ says. “I can be a little pessimistic at times, so I’m trying to turn the tables on that.”
A change at home has altered the pitcher’s perspective, too. That change’s name is J.J. (James Joseph). He likes pushing around his little truck, and he’s 11 months old. “He’s very social. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, for sure,” Happ says. He’s pretty sure J.J.’s partly responsible for his 20-win season. “It takes your mind to another place, which you need over the course of a season. There’s no doubt he’s created a better balance.”
Dickey calls it “a joy” to watch his friend reach his potential this season, having seen flashes of it in 2013 and 2014. “This isn’t a negative thing, but it’s an observation from a 41-year-old man to a 33-year-old man, having walked a mile in his shoes,” Dickey says. “My hope for him is that he would on some level really be able to enjoy this year and the way it’s unfolded for him and the journey that he’s been on over the last three or four years, because it’s very difficult to do what he’s doing. That’s been my encouragement to him: ‘Hey, enjoy this.’ It’s very special.”
Happ’s been sitting here in the dugout answering questions for half an hour now. He doesn’t like interviews, but he’s being a sport. “I hate this!” he says, smiling. “No, but it is a little uncomfortable talking about myself.” You sort of have to, though, when you become the second pitcher in baseball to 20 wins. “I’m starting to appreciate this a little bit more,” Happ says, of the attention. “Maybe.”
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