TORONTO – Perceptions of a player can change significantly over the course of a baseball season, and a perfect case in point is J.A. Happ in 2014.
Back in March, as the left-hander struggled through an awful camp, he seemed like a $5.2 million albatross, and there was simply no way to put him on the starting staff out of the gate. A sore back landed him on the disabled list at spring’s end, sheer desperation catapulted Dustin McGowan into the rotation, and once Happ returned he was awkwardly dumped into the bullpen to await an opportunity.
Thinking back to that time, few envisioned the sight of Happ walking off the Rogers Centre field Saturday in the Toronto Blue Jays’ penultimate game of the season, many in the crowd of 37,996 standing and cheering him after 6.1 solid innings of work in a 4-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
Happ allowed two runs on four hits and two walks, picking up his 11th win in 29 games, 25 of them starts. He lowered his ERA to 4.22 over 158 innings on the season, and while by no means are those Cy Young Award numbers, just think about where the Blue Jays would be without him.
“It’s pretty unbelievable, it’s kind of hard to imagine yourself in that position when you’re in some tough circumstances, sometimes it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Happ. “I always told you guys, and a lot of you guys probably didn’t believe me, but I felt like if I had the opportunity I could perform. You’ve got to keep having faith and keep working, it pays off. It felt good to walk off the mound today with the fans cheering the way they were, and to have the lead in the game. It was great.”
On May 2, Brandon Morrow injured his finger and as things turned out, he wouldn’t make another start all season. McGowan was barely hanging on as a starter at that point and after his May 14 start he returned to the bullpen, while Liam Hendriks stop-gapped things until Marcus Stroman was ready.
Had Happ not emerged the way he did, there would have been a lot of scrambling for the Blue Jays.
“He was the kind of the swing-guy, he hurt his back, then he came back and started in the bullpen, he didn’t want to do that, we didn’t want him to have to do that because that’s really not what he is,” said manager John Gibbons. “So he ended up in the best place he could be and he responded.”
The way he responded as the season progressed changed the outlook on the $8.9-million, two-year contract extension with a $6.7 million option for 2015 he signed two springs ago from unnecessary head-scratcher to clever piece of business.
Given that he’d surely fetch more than $6.7 million for one year as a free agent, that option is sure to be exercised, giving the Blue Jays a nice asset they can use in a trade or for their rotation.
Asked if he’d done enough to get his option exercised, Happ replied, “Uh, yeah. I hope so.”
And Gibbons’ thoughts?
“That’s not my department – I’ll voice my opinion,” he said. “I like everything about him, I think he’s really coming into his own. He’s not a young kid, but you see a more consistent pitcher.”
Playing into that is how Happ closed out the season by posting a 3.56 ERA over 81 innings in his last 13 starts, indicating that he was growing stronger as the finish line approached.
By lowering his arm slot,leaning more on a two-seam fastball he threw a career-high 16.3 percent of the time, and becoming a little more consistent with his changeup and breaking ball Happ broke out of the cycle of excessively high pitch counts through four or five innings that marked his first season and a half in Toronto.
He feels the progress is all sustainable.
“I feel like I’ve showed, over the second half especially, when healthy I’m able to make adjustments,” said Happ. “That’s the biggest part of the game, I think, is constantly trying to be comfortable and make the adjustments that the hitters are making to you. If I can keep doing that, and health is definitely an unknown, but if I can stay healthy, I’ll take my chances out there, for sure.”
Whether that means there’s still room for Happ to grow, or he reached his ceiling is uncertain. But the Blue Jays, and many other teams for that matter, would happily take exactly what he delivered in 2014 again next year.