Toronto Blue Jays Season Preview: Looking at the starting rotation

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04: Marcus Stroman
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04: Marcus Stroman /
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Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

J.A. Happ

When he made his return to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016, Happ was not exactly greeted with open arms. That all changed however, when he posted 20 wins, a 3.18 ERA, 163 strikeouts in 195 innings and the highest WAR rating of 4.5.

Unfortunately, like Sanchez, injuries limited the 35-year-old lefty to 145.1 innings over 25 starts, with a respectable 3.53 ERA, 142 strikeouts and 3.6 WAR rating.

The team decided to make the left-hander the opening day starter, which he says is a big honour for him. It was a move that did not come as a big surprise, because Gibbons believes he gives them a chance to win every time he pitches.

"“Happ, since we’ve brought him back, he’s really, really been good,” manager Gibbons told Sportsnet. “He’s just a reliable guy. He’s going to go out there and nine times out of 10 he’s going to give you a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for. He’s really turned into a good workhorse for us. He’s one of those guys you look forward to the days he pitches.”"

Happ will be a free agent after this season so he has a lot on the line this season and the margin for error is small, given how free agency went this past summer.

He understands the situation that he is in and spoke about it on the Jeff Blair show on Sportsnet 590 the Fan. 

"“I’m obviously aware that I’m not signed for next year but having gone through it one time already, the free agency process, I feel like the best thing to do—and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability—is focus on the year, focus on the Blue Jays,” Happ said on his contract status. “Otherwise, you kind of go down a wormhole there and all sorts of negative thoughts can creep in.”"

As Laura Armstrong of the Toronto Star recalled, Happ’s resurgence came back in 2015, when he was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He worked with pitching coach Ray Searage who made changes to his mechanics and Happ never looked back.

Here is Fangraphs‘ breakdown as written by Nick Pollack of Happ’s pitching profile:

"Happ’s rise to becoming a dependable lefty is no longer a surprise but a casual understanding, boasting his third straight season with a sub-3.65 ERA and a K rate comfortably north of 20%. The secret to everything is a fantastic mix-and-match of Happ’s four-seamer and sinker. Happ displayed a rare talent of a near 40% O-Swing% with his sinker in 2017, helping him induce excellent batted ball numbers with the pitch . The secret is his pristine command to nail the arm-side edge effortlessly, often playing the pitch just off the corner to get batters to swing at pitches they’d prefer to resist. His four-seamer, on the other hand, was located predominantly in the middle or the inner-half of the plate to right-handers, forcing batters to commit to the sinker when looking like a heater down the middle initially. Even more impressive is how his four-seamer (the heater that seems to have a worse overall location) earned a fantastic 11.2% whiff rate despite its 57.2% zone rate, turning into a strikeout offering with its 35.2% strikeout rate. It’s an uncommon approach that is working for Happ, and all that is holding him back is an array of secondary pitches that fail to excite. (Nick Pollack)"

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As Pollack writes, if Happ is able to command his pitches and continue to locate his fastball on the corners, he’ll be productive. Where he gets in trouble is when he hangs his pitches up in the zone and hitters get a hold of it.

Now, if he can find a way to work in his secondary pitches but if he continues to perform like he has the past two season, it is hard to complain if you’re the Blue Jays.

It would also be interesting to see if Happ could come back if his contract is up, especially if the team can get a deal done before the end of the season. They did the same with Estrada on a one-year deal, so that would not be an issue for this management group.

TSN’s Scott Cullen projected Happ to throw 164 innings, win 13 games, throw 149 strikeouts and post a 3.46 ERA. That is a respectable projection for the veteran pitcher and one the team would gladly accept.

Tip of the Tower projection: 173 IP, 13 wins, 3.48 ERA, 152 strikeouts.