J.A. Happ's solid start emblematic of quietly strong year

J.A. Happ did not get a win on Thursday night. He didn’t strike double-digit batters, and he didn’t wield a devastating breaking ball for which the Kansas City Royals had no answer.

Instead, in the Blue Jays 1-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals, Happ put in the kind of workmanlike performance that has characterized his subtly-effective season. While the southpaw’s  2017 campaign was marred by a DL stint for elbow inflammation, when healthy, his effectiveness has been underrated.

After pitching 6.2 innings of one-run ball, Happ left the game with a 3.63 ERA in 138 innings – a number bested by just 28 pitchers who’ve pitched at least that many frames. All night he commanded the strike zone effectively, climbed the ladder with the fastball when he was ahead, and found a little extra velocity when he needed it. He ended up with six strikeouts for his efforts against two walks with no extra-base hits allowed.

“I felt like that ball had good life tonight,” he said of the start. “Luke [Maile] did a great job back there too. I think everyone was on the same page getting ahead of those guys and trying to be aggressive.”

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher J.A. Happ works against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning of another quietly strong performance. (Nathan Denette/CP)

This was not a headline-grabbing performance. Happ’s rarely are. His game is built on the subtlety of command, the hardest aspect of pitching to quantify. He fills the zone with fastballs, but he finds the right spots at the right times to avoid getting knocked around. It’s difficult to achieve, but not particularly complicated – or exciting to watch.

However, as the end of the season comes around it’s become evident he’s been one of the best mid-rotation guys in the game. Despite his injuries this year, his 9.0 Wins Above Replacement since the beginning of 2015 ranks 24th among all pitchers, ahead of bigger names like Cole Hamels and Rick Porcello.

His exploits this year have particularly fallen under the radar. No one is jumping out of their boots to talk about a 34-year-old southpaw on one of the few American League teams out of the hunt. That’s especially true when neither his approach nor his results have meaningfully changed in recent years.

“I think he’s throwing the ball the way he did last year really,” manager John Gibbons said of his starter. “There was a stretch where he was missing his two-seamer a little bit, but other than that he’s really the same guy. He had to get built up and built up, but once he came back since then he’s had a nice season.”

Happ has posted a very respectable 2.5 WAR in limited time this year and given his team a good chance to win almost every time out. In his 20 starts since hitting the DL in April, he’s allowed three or fewer runs 16 times and only failed to deliver five innings twice – once by design in his first start back. On the other side of the coin, he’s only shut out his opponents once, and he’s posted just one 10-strikeout game.

That’s the kind of steadiness that doesn’t make for a swath of Happ jerseys in the stands at Rogers Centre. It doesn’t inspire lengthy highlight packs. There won’t be a bidding war over the movie rights.

Even so, that consistency is immensely valuable. This season, that value did not help the Blue Jays achieve their team goals, but next year it just might. Signing Happ to a three-year $36 million dollar contract prior to the 2016 season was a masterstroke, and even in a bit of a lost season for player and team, the veteran has showed why.

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