In all likelihood, J.A. Happ will not set the world on fire for the Toronto Blue Jays. Unlike the unreasonable expectations placed on him after his initial trade to the Houston Astros, the Blue Jays do not expect Happ to be a top-of-the-rotation type of starter. Happ will begin his tenure with the Jays in the bullpen with a solid shot at cracking the rotation in the near future as Brett Cecil inevitably continues to struggle.
The trade was not one that Blue Jays’ fans are accustomed to. Certainly, it was nothing like the Colby Rasmus trade of last year which saw the Blue Jays send out a couple of relievers and B prospect Zach Stewart for the young center fielder. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring disposal of an unmovable contract like the Vernon Wells trade. It was a fair deal, and that likely explains the ho-hum reaction to the trade from Blue Jays’ nation.
In exchange for Happ and relievers Brandon Lyon and David Carpenter, the Blue Jays disposed of two vestigial parts in Francisco Cordero and Ben Francisco and gave up some interesting yet uninspiring prospects in Asher Wojciechowski, Joe Musgrove, David Rollins, Carlos Perez, and the dreaded player-to-be-named-later. Rather than focus on parts lost, let’s turn our attention to the Jays’ prized acquisition from this quantity over quality 10-team trade.
J.A. Happ has been the subject of criticism for not living up to the potential that made him the centerpiece of the Roy Oswalt trade. However, this year, it appears that Happ has finally taken that step forward.
Happ’s fastball velocity has seen marginal increases in each year since his major league debut. In 2008, it sat at 88.8, and this year has climbed to 90.3, touching 93 and 94 at times. With this progression, Happ has worked to shed the label of soft-tossing lefty.
In addition to an increase in velocity, Happ has demonstrated a dramatic improvement in his ability to keep the ball on the ground. For his career, Happ keeps 37.9% of balls in play on the ground, a below-average figure. This year, that number has risen to 46.9%. As a tradeoff, Happ has seen reductions in both line drive rate and fly ball rate, demonstrating that he has not been hit as hard this year as he has in years past. This improvement puts Happ well above league average in terms of ground balls induced, about average in fly ball rate, and below league average in line drive percentage. Since line drives are most likely to go for extra-base hits, this reduction is a positive sign moving forward for the lefty.
Perhaps this progression can be attributed to his increased use of the curveball. For the majority of his career, Happ has depended primarily on his fastball/changeup combination, mixing in a slider on occasion and the curve even less often. However, since his first full season in 2008, Happ has steadily increased his usage of the curve. This year, he has thrown the curveball 13.5% of the time, up from 9.6% last year and 8.0% for his career. The velocity on his curve is also the fastest it has ever been.
Without question, Happ has seen a drastic improvement with his stuff this year. While a soft-tossing lefty is usually bad news in the AL East, it would appear that Happ does not fit this description any longer.
At face value, the trade is nothing to get excited about. However, with Happ’s steady peripheral improvement, there is justification for cautious optimism. Still, the AL East can do nasty things to a pitcher and thus some skepticism is in order. With much of their schedule coming against divisional rivals to close out the season, the Toronto Blue Jays will find out soon enough whether or not J.A. Happ can hang with the big boys.
Charles Davis is a baseball writer for RantSports.com with a specific focus on the Toronto Blue Jays, their farm system, and prospects league-wide. Read his articles here and follow him on Twitter @CPDavis90.