The case of J.A. Happ and his tenure with the Blue Jays certainly is a curious one.
He was acquired in a maligned trade for what is still deemed too many “prospects” in some corners, even as the players the Astros received continue to prove the Jays right in their evaluation.
He then was the saviour that all Jays fans were pining for this time a year ago, as he put in a great Spring Training while seemingly being destined for Buffalo, as Ricky Romero — the incumbent, the club insisted, until the bitter end — imploded.
Now he’s the man everybody wants out. Alex Anthopoulos has talked up the organization’s youngsters, partly out of self-preservation after doing fuck all to improve the rotation in the off-season, and that’s who fans want to see. Not J.A. Happ and his too many pitches, too few strikeouts, and supposed general mediocrity, especially now that he has begun this spring with two miserable outings (hurt though he may have been).
Even the team itself is wavering. Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet notes a tone change from Alex Anthopoulos, who now says two rotation spots may be up for grabs, admitting Happ’s early performance and sore back have caused concerns. Happ’s next start has been pushed back, according to a tweet from Mike Wilner, and the Jays aren’t saying when he’ll be on the mound next– perhaps he’s this year’s Brett Cecil or Ricky Romero, whisked away from prying eyes and getting his work in at unannounced times to keep the media from making his possible failure to make the team a bigger story than they want it to be (as if that ever works).
I don’t know, though. If he ends up returning to health and to the rotation competition in short order, frankly, I’m not sure the kids are necessarily as much better than a lot of fans think they’re going to be. But the bigger question is: better than what? Just who is J.A. Happ, and how do we get a handle on what we think he might bring to the Jays, given the ebbs and flows of his career since he was brought here in the most boring ten-player deal in history?
It’s an interesting question…
Reaction at the time of the acquisition was mixed, and has remained so.
I wrote about it here in utilitarian terms, explaining “it’s not like they have a lot of ready-made fall-back starters in case they have trouble finding pitching this winter or that Happ– unsexy as he is– isn’t better than the Aaron Laffeys of the world who’ll be available for nothing; it’s not like they’ll have Luis Perez to step into the lefty specialist role that may be vacated by the terrific Darren Oliver, should he be dealt or choose to retire (as rumoured); and it’s not like they’re not going to need a guy like Happ at some point over the next season-and-a-half.”
Parkes, however, as I noted in that post, practically busted out the champagne for Jeff Luhnow and company for the prospect haul the Astros received from the Jays. In September 2013, Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star still felt that way, huffing and puffing about the deal as the worst that Alex Anthopoulos has made in his tenure as Jays GM (Noah Syndergaard and Mike Napoli say hi!), but there’s no reason to think Keith Law didn’t absolutely nail it at the time of the deal, when he wrote — as I quoted in my own piece — that the Jays had merely dealt away ““fringe prospects who might have been squeezed out of 40-man spots by better players in the next few years and were one bad half-season away from losing any trade value they had.”
That certainly seems to be holding true two-and-a-half years later. Asher Wojciechowski is tenth on Baseball America’s list of the top Astros prospects, twelfth for Minor League Ball, and doesn’t make the the top tens from KLaw and Baseball Prospectus, or the top fifteen at FanGraphs. Dave Rollins has had some success as a pro, but only scrapes into the honourable mention at Minor League Ball — not even necessarily in the top 20. Joe Musgrove, the supposed hidden gem of the deal, turns 22 next month and has yet to play above rookie ball. Carlos Perez and Kevin Comer aren’t found on any of the lists either — though, like all of these guys, are not yet non-prospects, since it’s important to remember what a sickeningly loaded system Houston has built. Still, though!
Jon Hale wrote an excellent-as-usual piece at the Mockingbird, looking at Happ as a sneaky pick-up, due to upward trends in his strikeout and walk rates and velocity at the time. In 2013 the rate stats went south, but the velocity moved up once again. Perhaps its a slight mirage because he didn’t have a chance to wear down, but in 2013 Happ’s fastball averaged 91.1, according to FanGraphs. That’s up from 90.5 in 2012, and represents fifth straight year of increase since his 32 inning cameo in 2008, during which he averaged just 88.8.
The J.A. Happ optimist would look at a thing like that and get hopeful that last season was just a blip — and for obvious, line-drive-to-the-head-causing-knee-injury-y reasons. Shit, Happ’s FIP and xFIP in 2012 looked like possible harbingers of good things, even. Of the 103 big league pitchers who threw more than 140 innings in that upward-trending 2012, Happ’s xFIP of 3.92 ranked 47th. That may not sound terribly impressive, but it’s more than decent for a back-end starter, and was better than the marks put up by Homer Bailey, Jarrod Parker, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Peavy. His FIP of 4.01 placed him 57th, just a hair behind Bailey, and ahead of guys like Matt Harrison, C.J. Wilson, Jon Lester, and Justin Masterson.
It’s not a nothing pitcher who can put together a string of 140 innings like that — then follow it up with a very strong spring training of 2013, after his 2012 season ended with foot surgery. Those cherry-picked peripherals would be a whole hell of a lot more confidence-inspiring, though, if they weren’t such outliers (along with his 2.93 ERA in 2009 with the Phillies and 3.43 ERA the following year) among a sea of ERAs above 4.50, FIPs above 4.30, and xFIPs in the 4.60 range (and tERAs and SIERAs that don’t look any better).
You could — and if you were the Jays and inexplicably trying to insist Happ is some kind of key rotation piece and not what Law called at the time of the trade a guy with a “high-effort, short-arm action and a tendency to fly open after release, all of which probably points to a reliever future” you would — paint 2012 at the year. You’d likely point to the upward trends in rate stats and velocity and suggest that Happ deserves a mulligan on 2013, given that he was hit in the fucking head with a line drive, fractured his fucking skull, and bunged up his knee in the process, and that he should be afforded the opportunity to keep building on 2012.
You might even argue that he began to make good on that promise in six September starts last year against the Royals, Twins, Angels, Yankees, White Sox, and Rays. Not exactly a collection of the AL’s offensive juggernauts, but the group does include two of the best offences in baseball last year in the Rays and Angels, and in the very, very small sample, Happ was indisputably good: 34 hits, 13 walks, and 29 strikeouts in 33.1 innings of work; a 2.97 ERA and .312 wOBA against; a FIP of 3.65 and an xFIP at 4.20.
OK, so Clayton Kershaw it’s not, but you’ll take that out of your fourth or fifth starter, and interestingly, during the month Happ managed to keep his flyball rate down to almost the level it was at in 2012, when he was at his most successful.
Thing is, though, there was that stuff about trying out a new arm angle, which makes the whole narrative about steady improvement save for the injury-related blip a little hard to swallow. So… I don’t even know?
This spring hasn’t exactly been nearly as indicative of what to expect from him as a lot of sourpuss fans want to insist — he’s hurting and I saw in person that he looked much better a week ago against the Phillies than his line showed– and occasionally you can see him flash potential, but it’s hard not to look at the numbers on his FanGraphs page and see simple random variance poking its head through in the really bright spots. After all, not much has happened since July 2012 to change my original assessment.
In other words, he’s a guy they need, in terms of depth, but that doesn’t mean they ought to intentionally run him out there if there are better options. And, as I noted above, it seems as though the club’s mind might be changing on this matter. This morning Alex Anthopoulos spoke with the media in a wide-ranging conversation that was transcribed at Gregor Chisholm’s North Of The Border blog, and he continued distancing himself from the talk of previous weeks that Happ’s rotation spot was secure.
Asked about whether it’s one or two rotation spots that are up for grabs this spring, Anthopoulos was about as blunt as he gets:
There could be two. I think we’re going to take the best team north. Especially right now, we have J.A. and the back, the performance, things like that, we have to get him on track, stay healthy. Obviously R.A., Mark and Brandon. Again, we expect J.A. to be in the rotation but at the same time the back’s flared up on him twice. I just don’t know. Look, if guys perform well and they force our hand, we’ll take the best team.
Granted, it doesn’t exactly behoove the GM to come in and tell young guys who think they’re fighting for a spot that they’re really not, but I don’t think that’s what this is — especially because we already knew there would be a competition. And if Anthopoulos has personal favourites, divorced from the team politics and service time stuff, I don’t necessarily think they’re Happ.
“We saw that velocity at the end of his time in 2012 before he got hurt,” the GM said of Drew Hutchison. “When I went to the Arizona Fall League, it was so encouraging to see him pitch that way. He really started to come into his own in 2012 before he got hurt so I’m not surprised. I think I said it before, he’s a guy I expected to really impress. He’s off to a great start, he’s definitely opened some eyes, he’s a strong candidate to make the rotation but he’s got to make it. But I love what I see.”
And then there’s Marcus Stroman, too.
“He has a chance,” Anthopoulos said, after half-conceding that the youngster’s next outing or two are important ones if he’s going to impress enough to keep those chances alive. “I don’t know what the chances are, the percentages, but there’s a reason he’s getting stretched out, there’s a reason we’re giving him the innings. We want to take a look. If he can impress and really come on he’s going to make it hard on us, which is what we want.”
He’s just very calm and composed and I haven’t seen anybody chew gum on the mound while in the middle of throwing a pitch. I mean, I don’t think that’s being arrogant or cocky. I just think he’s very composed, he’s very athletic, I think he does a lot of things to help himself, whether it’s holding runners, things like that. He’s worked on his changeup. He’s still young, he’s still inexperienced and there’s still going to be a learning curve there, one way or the other. There’s a reason he was a consensus first round talent, where he went that was a debate but he’s always had stuff. Team USA, success at a D1 school, success in the minors, he’s had success everywhere he’s been despite how people doubt him because of his size.”
The stuff that comes out of his arm is great. I know we’ve talked about the Sonny Gray comparisons and I think they’re fair. I think Marcus is ready to be up here, stuff-wise I mean can he work on his changeup? Probably a little bit more, sure, but for the most part he’s ready to be up here. Do we have a spot? Is he performing to the level? Is he performing better than some of the other options? Those are all things we’re going to have to make a decision.
Then the big question: will he really take the best team, or will service time issues play a factor in keeping a guy like Stroman down?
No doubt about it, the best team. Where it becomes a little more interesting, if you have multiple players, if it’s close and someone has options and someone’s out of options, you keep the depth. If it’s not close then you take the best players. That’s always the way it’s been. That’s why those players that have options left have to be that much better than the guys they’re competing against and I’ve told the players that to their faces. But those guys that are out of options, if they’re not performing and guys are clearly an upgrade over them and will make a big difference for them we’ll go with the best team.
Obviously he wouldn’t say that he’s going to manipulate service time, and obviously he’s giving himself a solid justification for not taking him north with the club by making it clear that Stroman — or anyone still with options left — will have to be head and shoulders above the competition in order to make the Opening Day roster. But on the other hand, surely Anthopoulos knows how important this season is to his job, his career, the careers of many of those around him, the project he’s brought along this far, and just how very important it is for the club to get off to a good start to the season. He hasn’t often taken the kind of cynical, selfish route that his predecessor did when it comes to attempting to preserve his employment status first and foremost, but if ever there was a time to do so, trying to catch lightning in a bottle with Stroman might be his best chance. Biting the bullet on having Happ’s contract in the minors or the bullpen seems reasonable enough, too. And it’s not even necessarily in the worst interest of the organization, either. I mean, it’s better off if this damn thing would work and Anthopoulos can manage to keep his job, rather than just tearing it all down and starting again, even though he’ll have left the club with a tremendous foundation with which to do so with, should it come to that.
But it’s easy to dream on that potential, and hard to get geared up about the dependable mediocrity with occasional flashes of more that the club can expect from Happ. The answer isn’t necessarily as obvious as it seems, as guys like Stroman and Hutchison simply haven’t yet had the opportunity to go through the kinds of ebbs and flows that have characterized Happ’s career as a big leaguer. It would be easier if we had a better handle on what Happ is and what those young arms will be, but part of the fun is in finding out.
I mean… uhh… fretting under a cloud of hopelessness that this season may never see clear sky thanks to a bunch of dice-rolls in the rotation is fun, right?