This Blue Jays season has been, in many ways, reminiscent of the last. Mostly in that there’s been a lot of bad baseball played. While the Jays started out in the absolute worst way possible last April before crawling back to the low-end mediocrity in which they would reside for the entirety of the season, this year’s Jays gave us all some amount of false hope with a great April. They knocked that false hope over the head with a lead pipe and lowered it into a grave with shockingly little ceremony in May.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been a lot of fun to be had — I was in town to see that sweep of the Nationals, after all. The team, when they manage to pull out wins, typically does so in an entertaining way. I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of Randal Grichuk since his DL stint, and the few weeks where it seemed like Luke Maile had become a good hitter. Yangervis Solarte is a joy. The impressive debut Ryan Borucki has put together has been particularly fun to watch, because that, more than anything, gives us a glimpse of what the next good Jays team might look like.
But it hasn’t been great. There’s been a lot of games that I’ve only half-watched, whose scores I’ve checked and then abandoned altogether. I was looking forward to the resurgence of Aaron Sanchez, to another great season from Marcus Stroman, for Josh Donaldson to keep on being Josh Donaldson, and maybe — just maybe — for Tulo to play even just one game. Just one! Like last year, though, the Jays have been waylaid by injuries and inconsistency. And there has been no stunning breakout along the lines of the Justin Smoak All-Star first half of yesteryear. The Jays are sending but one player to DC as their representative this year. And he’s going to be gone soon, anyway.
I wasn’t around for J.A. Happ’s first stint with the Jays. It fell right in the middle of the period of time where I didn’t watch baseball. When they signed him as a free agent after the 2015 season, I had no memories to measure him up against. I looked at the pictures: he seemed profoundly nondescript. I looked at the list of teams he had pitched for, his stats with each of them, and apart from his stellar rookie season, and maybe his half-season with the Pirates in late 2015, nothing jumped out at me other than the mundane consistency of it all. He’d been good, but never that good; he’d been bad, but never that bad. I found no reports of Happ being an notably good teammate, nor any that suggested he was notably bad; there was no interpersonal drama to speak of, nor any spicy quotes given to the press. He didn’t have any particularly exciting secondary pitch, no wipeout slider, no changeup that froze batters — he mostly just threw a lot of fastballs. It seemed like the most neutral signing possible.
When I searched Happ’s name on Youtube, all I found were variations on the same video.
This is J.A. Happ’s tenth season in the major leagues. During that time, he’s been the subject of previous few interviews or profiles. When he was unable to repeat his rookie success with the Phillies, he was quickly overshadowed by other members of those perennial playoff teams. His time in Houston was both brief and unremarkable; he spent a lot of his time with the Jays stuck in Triple A because he still had options, or was injured, and then he got traded away. With the Mariners, he was okay; with the Pirates, he was exceptional. But he only stayed for that half a season, not long enough to build up any attachment. And that Pirates team more generally was extremely disappointing.
In 2016, Happ’s return to the Jays, when he finished sixth in Cy Young voting and anchored the best rotation in the American League, he was outshone in the rotation by Aaron Sanchez. 2017 was bad for the Jays. Happ has been one of the better starting pitchers in baseball over the last few seasons. He has managed to do so in such a way that has rendered him almost invisible to anyone not paying close attention. A Happ start has never been an event, just a quiet expectation of quality. I never remember that his name is all one syllable, that the J blends together with the A. I always have to catch myself.
It was outsized personalities that made this successful Jays team notorious. The next successful Jays team will probably be built on similarly outsized personalities. Vlad and Bo are already larger than life in Double A; one can only imagine what they’ll be like as full-fledged major leaguers, playing on the biggest stages possible. We got a taste of it in Montreal, in that pre-season series, with the unforgettable walk-off and the moments afterward — soaring into the air, victory written all over everyone’s faces. Big and loud, just like the fanbase when there’s a team worth cheering for.
The 2016 team, with all the swagger carried over from the year before, with the homers and the fighting and the attitude, would not have made it to the postseason if not for J.A. Happ. I can’t remember a single Happ start from that season, except the one where he threw at Chase Headley. I remembered it because Joaquin Benoit injured himself running out from the bullpen, and because of how unexpected the retaliatory pitch was coming from Happ. It was almost shocking.
Happ has never pitched 200 innings in a season. Apart from 2016, he’s never even really come close to that number. He is injured more often than I think of him being. He always seems to enter absences and return from them with extraordinarily little ceremony.
I haven’t watched those videos of him getting hit in the head with a line drive. I don’t need to see that. There is nothing worse than that sound, than the possibility of a simple game having such horrific consequences. I have, however, read the articles about it. I’ve read the articles from the day after, when Happ, with a fractured skull, was back at Tropicana Field talking to reporters, because he was still fine. How is that possible? How could anyone go back to the place where they easily could have died so soon after almost dying, still with the break in their skull? The quotes Happ gave to the reporters that day were the same as always: boring, almost boilerplate. I could never imagine possessing that kind of steadiness.
Judging by the frequency of search results, it seems like the line drive incident is the most remembered moment of Happ’s career. I hope that doesn’t end up being the case forever, but I can easily see how it would be. We are easily distracted by the morbid and obscene; we would rather engage with something distinctly terrible than something indistinctly good. Happ has been a good pitcher, if an indistinct one. He’s never been the most interesting player, nor the most interesting to watch work. He has been good — for teams that have often been bad, or often been riddled with dramatics. There’s a value in that lull. It’s the calmness that’s embedded in baseball. The silent space where you know what’s going to happen. Sometimes the excitement isn’t what you need out of a baseball game. Sometimes you just want to feel reassured.
Happ is almost certainly going to get traded before this month is over. He’ll be a free agent in the winter, and he’s returned to the Blue Jays once already. It’s certainly not unlikely that he’ll return again, after he goes and pitches for the Yankees in the playoffs, or for whatever team ends up enlisting his services. If he comes back, I imagine he’ll settle right back into the rotation, no matter how different the rest of the roster might end up looking by next season. I imagine it’ll feel like he never left.
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