J.A. Happ was nearly untouchable in the second half of last season after being acquired by the Pirates, pitching to a 1.85 ERA and striking out 69 batters in 63 1/3 innings in 11 starts.
That prompted the Blue Jays to throw a three-year, $36-million contract his way in the offseason, and he hasn’t disappointed.
The 33-year-old lefthander won his MLB-best 17th game Wednesday afternoon against the Yankees, as the Toronto offense tagged CC Sabathia for seven runs and paved the way to a 7-4 victory.
“He’s just turned into a better pitcher,” manager John Gibbons said. “He’s more of a command guy. He’s got a great feel. He’s doing a tremendous job, 17 wins.”
One might usually take the wins statistic with a grain of salt. Seventeen wins are impressive through 24 starts, but Happ does get 6.13 runs of support per game, tied with Stephen Strasburg for third most in baseball.
A good number of MLB pitchers could win 17 games with that type of support.
But Happ has been stellar, with the offense’s production behind him only giving him even more of a cushion on the mound.
He has struck out 133 batters in 150 1⁄3 innings and pitched to a 3.05 ERA. His FIP of 3.88 (Fielding Independent Pitching, a stat that estimates a pitcher’s ERA using only strikeout, walk and home run rates) does suggest that he’s been a little lucky, but not enough for any alarms to sound.
A ground ball rate of 42.4 percent, according to FanGraphs, also contributes to Happ’s success. The lefthander has become adept at inducing weak contact and hitting his spots, allowing him to limit damage.
Happ did allow four runs against the Yankees, his most since he allowed five runs against the Rockies on June 28. Three runs came via solo homers by Gary Sanchez, Starlin Castro and Chase Headley, only one of which Happ categorized as a mistake.
“I look back on those three, and really the one I would call a mistake would be the one to Headley,” Happ said. “He pulled a two-seamer, kind of middle-middle, and he crushed that one. But the other two I felt like they were good pitches, they just got to them.”
Happ cited his comfort level with catcher Russell Martin for part of his success, while also acknowledging that a potent offense helps take the pressure off a pitcher.
Offense has been the name of the game for several years in Toronto, but Happ gives the Jays an under-the-radar ace for both the stretch run and postseason.
The last Blue Jay to lead the American League in wins was Roy Halladay, who notched a team-record 22 victories in 2003. Happ stands to make about seven more starts before the end of the regular season.
Halladay’s mark is certainly within reach.