He’s six-foot-five, he grew up in Peru, and he has the third-most wins of any MLB pitcher.
Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ recorded his 12th win before the all-star break, matching his career-high wins total from 2009.
Sportsnet caught up with the 33-year-old to talk about hiding fastballs, finding consistency, loving burgers and hating bagged milk.
Sportsnet: What’s your hometown like?
Happ: Peru’s great. It’s a small farm town in Illinois, about 100 miles south-west of Chicago. It’s in the middle of cornfields, one stop light type of town, about 10,000 people. We rode our bikes all over when we were kids.
Is there a sign when you enter Peru that says ‘Home of J.A. Happ’?
There is actually, yeah. [Laughs.]
I heard you were big in to basketball as a kid.
That was my first love. I probably did prefer it to baseball. If I was able to play in the NBA, that would be great.
You wouldn’t have made it?
When did you realize you were really good at baseball?
When I was a freshman in college. You always wonder: ‘Am I as good as these other freshmen coming in?’ You never know. Then you have a good year and you feel like, ‘Ok, maybe I can do this.’ That was probably the first time I thought I had a chance to play pro ball.
How would you describe how this season has gone for you so far?
I’m pleased with the way it’s gone. As a team, we’re starting to play good baseball and we’re climbing back into this thing. I feel like I’m being pretty consistent out there, and that’s the hardest thing about baseball. I think we all go through some periods where we can be really good or really bad. The hardest thing is being good consistently. Trying to give your team a chance to win every time out there is my goal. I feel like for the most part I’ve been doing that.
Some say you’ve been quietly consistent.
I don’t know. I don’t think about it, and if that’s true, I don’t mind that at all. That’s probably a good thing for me.
How has your approach changed since last season?
I’m beating myself up a little bit less over poor performances. I’m taking the negatives and positives in stride, rather than dwelling on the bad. I certainly still get upset and carry things. But I think I’ve gotten better as my career’s gone on and I think that’s helped me turn the page and look forward to the next game, rather than worry about the last one.
Can you forget about a tough outing that same night?
I haven’t gotten there yet. That night is always a tough night’s sleep. But you get to the park the next day and you start your process to get ready for the next one.
What’s your game day routine like?
I generally don’t have a huge appetite. I usually make a smoothie in the morning, come here and get ready. I usually have a lot of shakes in the day just to try to get some calories in me.
Is it nerves?
It must be. I don’t feel super nervous but I think it’s anxiety. I know that’s the day that’s time to work. Something subconsciously makes me feel that way.
Marco Estrada says all he eats in the afternoon when he’s pitching is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Maybe you can make him a smoothie.
[Laughs.] I’ve seen him do that. Maybe I’ll make him a smoothie, but it seems to be working pretty well for him, so I’ll let him stay on track there.
There’s a lot of talk about this starting rotation these days.
Yeah, I feel like that’s ok. We’re just trying to stay with what we’ve been doing and keep it up. We’ve done a good job of keeping us in ballgames and occasionally doing a little bit more than that. On a night when maybe we’re struggling in other areas, it’s huge.
I’ve never faced your fastball, but I hear it seems it’s coming in faster because you hide the ball. Is that a conscious thing?
Not really. It’s part of my natural delivery. There are times where I get a little out of whack and it’s a little less hidden, a little more visible, and batters pick it up a little earlier. I’m constantly trying to stay in my mechanics because I’m aware that it may be a little bit sneaky. I think there’s a little bit of deception that helps. I’m not throwing 98 miles an hour. I’m not saying it seems like that either, but it probably seems a little faster than it is.
If you could take one player out of baseball and never have to face him again at the plate, who would it be?
Oh man. Wow. You know what? I’m gonna go to the other league so that I don’t get anybody too confident in our own league. I’ll go with Andrew McCutchen. I played with him last year and I told him the same thing. His last 30 at-bats it feels like he’s 28 for 30 against me. I don’t know what the numbers are, but he’s done some damage.
Did you know Darwin Barney is a good piano player?
I didn’t know that.
Do you have any hidden talents?
Oh man, no. I don’t play any instruments. When I was younger I played the guitar and I just waited until I was old enough to quit, and I regret that to this day. I had to play for a couple years. My mom is very musically inclined—she played the piano, my sisters played the violin and cello, I played the guitar and I had to take it for a few years. I wish I would have kept with it.
Could’ve had the Happ band.
Yeah, we could’ve. It was a mistake, definitely. Maybe post-baseball I’ll take it up again. There’s been a few seasons where I’ve tried to pick it up during the season and it’s not good for the calluses on my fingers, holding the strings down and pitching from there. I gotta ease into it slowly so they build up slowly—but that just sounds like an excuse. I’m just gonna have to wait til the career’s over, I think. That’s my excuse.
What do you do on a day off?
Off days more than anything are a nice mental break. I try to sleep, though I have an 8-month old, so that’s a little different than in years past, the whole sleeping thing. It’s usually kind of a lazy day, strolling around. Maybe doing something we don’t do a lot. Sometimes I’ll go try to find a good burger—I don’t eat a lot of burgers so I’ll try to find a good burger joint.
Have you found a great burger?
The other day I got a Burger’s Priest burger. It was very good. I would definitely visit again.
You must be more familiar with Toronto now, having lived here before.
Yeah, I feel a lot more comfortable in the city this time around. I’m liking it more and more. I’m happy to be back.
Is there anything you’re still not used to in Canada?
I think I’ve gotten used to most of the stuff. Grocery shopping is a little different. I still don’t understand the bagged milk situation here.
You guys sell milk in bags and I don’t really get why, or what you do then with the bags. Other than that it seems like Canada’s doing a pretty good job. [Laughs.] But I don’t get the milk. Put it in a gallon jug so you don’t have the sloppy, messy bag.
You know you put the bag in a milk jug, right?
Where’s the jug? Do you have to buy the jug separately? Why are they not in the jug already?
Oh my gosh. You have to ask someone at the grocery store for help.
Why do I have to ask? I should just grab it from the counter and it should be ready for me to drink.
There’s an assumption that you know to put the bag in a milk jug and cut it open.
[Laughs]. They can’t assume that. I’ve never bought it because I see this bag of milk and I’m like I don’t get what I can do with this thing.
J.A., I can’t believe this.
[Laughs.] We need a memo sent out to all American players on how Canada dispenses its milk. Would you prefer to have a gallon of milk or a bag or milk? You can pick up a gallon and walk out of the store. Or you can try to figure out how to drink your bagged milk.
I think I have to bring you a milk jug.
That would be great.