Ian Happ was given crisp blue pinstripes on May 13 and started hot right right out of the gate. In his first 40 plate appearances, the player often compared to Ben Zobrist earned consistent playing time by hitting .294 with a .353 ISO and .430 wOBA. Essentially every pitch Happ hit traveled into the gaps or over the fence. However, the league quickly adjusted, forcing the rookie into a cold stretch.
But perhaps Happ is adjusting just as fast as the league initially adjusted to him.
Despite that scorching start, pitchers were able to make the switch-hitter whiff against 37.3 percent of total pitches (~20 percent worse than MLB average) and 23.5 percent of pitches inside the strike zone (~10 percent worse than average). Sustaining a high rate of run production would be next to impossible when missing that many pitches.
Indeed, over Happ struggled mightily over his next 32 plate appearances, batting .138 with a .034 ISO and a .186 wOBA. While splitting up these small samples can be viewed as cherry-picking, such polar-opposite small samples point to at least something.
The degree to which the 22-year-old struggled certainly — and justifiably — raised eyebrows. Most of his issues came from chasing pitches up in the zone, as illustrated below, and he was clearly in need of an adjustment.
But, hey, then something impressive happened!
Happ has adjusted over his last 66 plate appearances, which manifested in making more frequent contact. Whereas he connected with pitches at a rate that was 20 percent worse than the MLB average even during his hot stretch, Happ improved his overall contact rate from 37.3 percent to 28.8 percent. Following suit, his zone contact also improved from ten percent below league average to right at the league average marker of 86.7 percent.
A bulk of that improvement came against high pitches and has led to a .446 wOBA during this stretch and, going into Thursday’s multi-hit performance, an overall .381 wOBA.
Not getting beat against high pitches doesn’t necessarily mean this current level of production will continue, though. He actually hasn’t secured a base knock against pitches in those upper tier zones. Instead, Happ has extended at-bats and put the ball in play against these pitches, and that points to an improved ability to make contact overall.
For example, look at how he smacked a high 93 mph fastball to the first base side in comparison to the same pitch that he whiffed against during his first few games with the Cubs.
Because contact rate takes around 100 plate appearances to stabilize, we should continue to monitor this encouraging trend. It’s looking better so far, though.