The Toronto Blue Jays have had many “aces” throughout the course of the 2016 season. Prior to the season’s beginning, everyone had Marcus Stroman penciled in as the club’s top man. Stroman had yet to complete a full season in the MLB, but after last season’s heroic comeback and performance in the post season, everyone was ready to crown Stroman the next Roy Halladay. Stroman came out of the gate exceptionally slow and it hasn’t been until recently that he has turned on the jets and shown sustained success.
In the early portion of the season, however, the Jays had multiple starters step up and fill the void; namely Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada, Toronto’s two all-star pitchers. Sanchez, who was uncertain of even making the rotation, and Estrada, who has shown that 2015 was no fluke, put the rotation on their back and carried the brunt of the load for the first half. Marco has potentially put too much on his back (okay, a terrible pun); which has limited his effectiveness and ability to go deep into starts. Sanchez has been nothing short of brilliant all season long, even with the inordinate amount of drama and speculation regarding his future.
Lost in all of this has been J.A. Happ. No disrespect to J.A., but he is rather easy to forget. He doesn’t throw the ball in the upper-90s, he doesn’t have an insane wipeout slider that racks up loads of strikeouts; but he is a model for consistency. Consistency itself is not flashy. Most baseball fans would rather see Stephen Strasburg pitch because he might strikeout 15 guys, despite being nearly equally effective this season. I would imagine that most managers, and general managers alike, love what Happ brings to the table. Every five days you can count on J.A. to throw between six and seven innings and allow about two runs to score. Now let’s delve into how Happ has been so consistent throughout the season.
Despite Happ throwing the ball from the south-side of the mound, it makes no difference to him which side of the plate the batter stands on. This season righties have slashed .228/.288/.675, whereas lefties have hit .238/.304/.650. Even though the result is similar, the approach Happ implements is quite different. When facing a left handed batter, J.A. eliminates the use of his changeup and cutter, focusing primarily on executing with the fastball (fourseam and sinker) as well as the slider. Against righties, the mentality changes. Happ reduces the amount of fourseam fastballs he throws and replaces them primarily with changeups. These changeups will dive to outside part of the plate to righties. As a result, Happ has generated a groundball on 44% of changeups he throws to righties that are put into play. This is a clear cut sign of weak contact.
There are some Jays pitchers that seem to care if they are playing at Rogers Centre or on the road. To Mr. Consistency these issues are trivial. As one can expect, Happ performs as well at home as he does on the road. This is somewhat surprising as Happ does not rank near the top in ground ball percentage and Rogers Centre is a known launch pad. Having said this, Happ does display a sinker with some quality horizontal and vertical movement on it. His teammates, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, have put on a clinic for how to induce ground balls this season; and there is no better location to execute this strategy than in a hitter’s friendly park.
There is tremendous value in a pitcher that can provide 200 innings of work in a season, even if they are average of slightly below average. Not to poke fun of R.A. Dickey, but he hasn’t been stellar for the Jays since they acquired him, however, you can always count on him for 200+ innings. Barring any injuries, it appears Happ will throw in excess of 200 innings as he is currently at 150 with approximately eight or nine more starts to go. The major difference with Happ this season is the quality of innings that he is providing the Jays. I believe it would be a stretch to think that J.A. Happ is currently in the conversation of winning the AL Cy-Young but he is certainly in that second tier of pitchers. Consider that statement! This is a pitcher that when the club signed him in the offseason for three years, $36 million, no one really took note other than to say ‘Oh, we got J.A. Happ again…’
The front office deserves a shout out for believing in the well-documented changes that Happ made toward the end of last season in Pittsburgh. Many people were skeptical, questioning if Happ would improve the rotation, but here we are nearing the end of August and the Jays have the best rotation in the AL, largely helped by Happ’s contributions every five days. Am I alone in thinking that if the Jays found themselves in a wild card game, Happ might be the pitcher I want on the mound to get the win? After all, the man does have a MLB-leading 17 wins to his name thus far. Consistency pays off it seems, and Happ has been the unsung hero of the Jays team all season long.
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