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Top 60 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #40 J.A. Happ

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

James Anthony Happ | SP | 2012-2014, 2016-2018

J.A. Happ was born October 19, 1982, in Peru, Illinois. The Phillies drafted him in the third round of the 2004 draft out of Northwestern University. The Blue Jays choose Danny Hill and Adam Lind in that round. You win some. You lose some.

The Phillies called him up for a start in 2007 (it didn’t go well), and, in 2008, he was up and down 3 times, pitching a total of 31.2 innings. He got his first full season in 2009, putting up a 2.93 ERA in 35 games, 23 starts. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting (the Sporting New named him their RoY. 2010 didn’t go as well. He was in the rotation for two starts at the start of the season, then went on the DL with a ‘strained forearm’ and made 9 minor league ‘rehab’ starts.

After being called up for one start, the Phillies traded him to the Astros for Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar (baseball is a small world, you see the same names repeatedly). Happ became a full-time starter with the Astros, making 59 starts for them, in the two years, minus 9 days he was there, with a 4.84 ERA.

Then, on July 20, 2012, he came to the Blue Jays in a 10-player trade. Happ, David Carpenter, and Brandon Lyon came to the Blue Jays for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joe Musgrove, Carlos Perez, David Rollins, Asher Wojciechowski, and Kevin Comer going to Houston.

I wasn’t a fan of the trade. I tend to overvalue our prospects, but I didn’t see Happ as a big upgrade for the rotation, but:

Alex sees something in him and I guess I should give Alex the benefit of the doubt by now. I see Happ as another number 4 starter. I don’t see him being helpful in our quest to make the playoffs. He makes our team better now (though I don’t understand why they want to use him out of the bullpen, put him in the rotation), but I don’t know that he makes our team better in the future.

Alex Anthopoulos had tried to trade for Happ when Happ was with the Phillies. He clearly saw something in Happ that I didn’t. I wasn’t the only one wondering about the deal. Jasper Bosman wrote:

J.A. Happ’s not a very good pitcher, nor does he have huge upside. He is, however, having a good year in terms of missing bats, and he could be decent if that continues while the home runs disappear. If the Jays have seen something like Happ tipping his fastball, perhaps they thought they could fix that and get his fastball to former (2009-2010) dominance again. Happ is not that far removed from being a decent pitcher, so if the Astros somehow made him worse, perhaps the Jays are gambling on being able to reverse the process

I was happier that the trade made room for Travis Snider to play in the outfield (little did I know that Snider would be traded ten days later). Of the players who went to the Astros, Musgrove is that one that has turned into a good major leaguer.

Happ finished the season as a swingman, making 6 starts and 4 relief appearances, with a 4.69 ERA in 40 innings, with 17 walks and 46 strikeouts. He missed most of September with a fracture in his right foot.

In March of 2013, the Jays signed J.A. to a two-year contract extension, paying him $3.7 for 2013, $5.2 million in 2014, and an option at $6.7 for 2015.

Coming into 2013, the Jays intended to have J.A. start the year in the Bisons’ rotation. As Alex said teams never make it through the season on five starters. The team picked up R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle in the off-season, making things crowded in the rotation. Happ was not happy with the idea of going back to the minors.

By the end of spring training, Happ won the fifth spot in the rotation. Ricky Romero was the one that was sent down. His season started ok. He made 5 starts in April, with a 3.86 ERA. Then, on May 7th, in Tampa Bay, Happ took a line drive off the head. Happ went down hard and stayed down. It was a very scary moment. They took him off the field in a stretcher. He spent the night in hospital but was released the next day. His head injury turned out to be minimal, but on his fall after the ball hit him, he hurt his right knee, spraining it. He ended up on the 60-day DL. He didn’t play again until August 7th.

In all, J.A. started 18 games, had a 5-7 record, with a 4.56 ERA. His strikeout rate dropped. In 92.2 innings, he struck out 77 batters.

The 2014 season started with Happ back on the DL. When he was ready to pitch, they put him in the bullpen, but by mid-May, Dustin McGowan had pitched his way out of the rotation, and Happ took his place. He ended up with an 11-11 record and a 4.22 ERA.

After the season, the Jays traded Happ to the Mariners for Michael Saunders. We figured it was a trade that would work out for both players. Happ should be better off in the bigger park in Seattle, and Saunders would hit better in the smaller Rogers Centre. Unfortunately, Saunders stepped on a sprinkler head in spring training and tore the meniscus in his knee, causing him to miss almost all of 2015. He did have a good first half of the 2016 season, hitting .298/.372/.551 with 16 home runs at the break and made the All-Star team. The second half didn’t go as well. He hit .178/.282/.357.

Happ had a rough time in Seattle. He had a 4.64 ERA after 20 starts. The Mariners traded him to Pittsburgh. His career turned around there. Working with pitching coach Ray Searage he figured things out. He went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts.

After the season, he signed with the Blue Jays as a free agent for 3 years and $36 million. Happ cited getting to work with Pete Walker as a reason for signing with the Jays (though I’d imagine the $36 million didn’t hurt). We weren’t thrilled with the signing. Our poll went:

Love it: 2%

Like it: 26%

Neutral: 34%

Dislike: 24%

Hate it: 13%

We were wrong. He was a different pitcher than the one we remembered.

2016 was a career year for JA. He went 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 32 starts. In 195 innings, he handed out 60 walks and had 163 strikeouts. He had career highs in wins, starts, innings, bWAR (4.5) and finished fifth in Cy Young voting (the only season he received Cy Young votes). Before 2016 his career-high in wins was 12. In 20 of his starts he allowed 2 earned runs or less. Batters hit .231/.295/.371 against him, and he was equally good against left and right-handed batters.

Happ pitched in game two of our ALDS win over the Rangers, allowing 9 hits in 5 innings, but just 1 earned. And he lost game two of our ALCS loss to Cleveland. He went 5 innings, allowing 4 hits, 2 earned, giving up a home run to Carlos Santana. We scored a total of 3 runs in our 4 losses in that series.

He was just about as good in 2017, but in 2016 his team scored him 6.3 runs a game, while they scored 3.9 runs a game in 2017. And he missed a month and a half with inflammation in his elbow. He ended up 10-11 with a 3.53 ERA in 25 starts.

In 2018 Happ was our Opening Day starter. He was flying along with a 10-6 record and a 4.18 ERA, and he made the All-Star team for the first time in his career when we traded him to the Yankees for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney (yeah I know).

In his 2+ seasons with the Yankees, he went 21-10 with a 4.13 ERA in 50 starts. He signed with the Twins just a few days ago.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Happ’s in his first go-around with the Jays, but he seemed like a whole different pitcher in his second time. In his 20s, he was 35-35 with a 4.19 ERA in 116 games, 96 starts. In his 30s, he went 88-57 with a 3.87 ERA in 208 games, 202 starts. When you only have 35 wins before the age of 30, getting to 123 is pretty good—some pitchers who have injury issues in their 20s age well. The limited innings pitched can save their arms for their later years.

To me, in his first stint with the Jays, he was frustrating. He seemed to be going to a full count on every batter. He was timid. He stayed on the edges. If he did get ahead in the count, he would waste pitches to get to a loaded count. In his second stint, he seemed more confident. He challenged hitters. He was far more aggressive. I think that’s what he learned from Ray Searage and likely what Pete Walker reinforced. Throw strikes, get ahead and stay aggressive. It is just a guess, but I know, back in 2013 and 2014, I hated watching his starts. I knew he would get to a full count and then either groove a pitch or walk the guy. When he came back, he seemed more confident.

In his first 3 seasons with the Jays, he had a 1.5 bWAR. His second time with the team, in just short of three seasons, he had a 9.1 bWAR.

He was never a flame thrower, never averaged over 92 mph on his fastball, and threw slider and change. Earlier in his career, he threw a curve.

J.A. is 1 of 6 Blue Jays pitchers who won 20 games. Roy Halladay and Roger Clemens each did it twice.

He’s married and has a son and a daughter.

J.A. Happ’s place among Blue Jays pitchers:

bWAR: 14th

ERA (>500 innings): 13th, 3.88

Wins: 9th, 59

Strikeouts per 9 innings: 6th, 8.344

Strikeouts: 9th, 691

Innings pitched: 17th, 745.1

Game Started: 13th, 127