I really didn't think we'd ever see J.A. Happ back in a Blue Jays uniform. Happ's first stint with the Jays wasn't all that happy. He spent time a good bit of time on the DL, spent time in the minors (mostly because he had options) and was in and out of the rotation.
In his three Blue Jay seasons, he had a 4.39 ERA, in 58 games, 50 starts and how a total bWAR of -0.2.
The trade to Seattle, for Michael Saunders looked like a deal that would be good for both players. Saunders would get to hit in a much better park for a lefty fly ball hitter and Happ was going from a hitter's park to a pitcher's park. It would be a win for everyone.
It wasn't. Saunders lost a fight with a sprinkler head. Happ was pretty bad for the Mariners. In 21 games (20 starts), a 4.64 ERA, 109.2 innings, 121 hits, 32 walks and 82 strikeouts. Traded to the Pirates, his season turned around. In 11 starts, he had a 1.85 ERA, 63.1 innings, 13 walks and 69 strikeouts.
The Jays signed him to a 3-year, $36 million contract. It seemed a bit of a gamble. We weren't thrilled:
I didn't like the idea of a 3-year contract for a 33 year old who hasn't been much better than replacement, in the past few years. Those 11 starts, with the Pirates, took him from someone that would have been looking for a 1-year, prove something to us, contract, to a 3-year, decent money deal.
If you like the deal, you think that he learned something in the second half of last season. That Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage found the key to unlock Happ's potential.
What did he do different with the Pirates? Jeff Sulllivan, at Fangraphs, took a look at it and said that there were three reasons for the improvement:
1. More fastballs: He threw more fastballs. 4-seem fastballs. And he threw a cutter (as I type this, Happ was just interviewed by Buck after leaving today's spring game and Happ said he calls his slider a cutter as a reminder to himself not to turn it into a curvey thing, keep it tight).
2. More Strikes: As someone that watched Happ pitch for the Jays, I'm all for him throwing more strikes. Most of the time, he seemed to be trying to pitch to a full count. He couldn't throw deep into games, because he was nearing 100 pitches by the fifth inning. He throws hard, it always seemed that he would be better off challenging hitters.
3. Faced lessor opponents: Well, that one we can't really do anything about. He's going to face some good teams.
Happ is going to be a guy that I'll be watching closely this spring, looking for signs that he's either the guy from the first half or the second half of last season.
At 32, Happ has never thrown more than 172 innings, in the majors, in a season. And that was last year. And, until last year, he never had an fWAR over 1.9 (last year he had a 3.3). Paying him $12 million a year, it looks like the Jays are gambling they will be getting a >2.0 each of these three seasons.
I kind of lump him and Estrada together, two players that earned themselves a big payday with a great second half, last year, and the Jays are making a bet that they can, maybe not pitch at quite the same level, but that they will at least approach what they did last year. If they can do it, we should have a very good team this year. If they don't, it might not be as much fun at Rogers Centre this year.