Have you ever slapped a “Hi, My Name Is” tag on your shirt and then forgot to remove it before it went into the wash? Parents have surely experienced something similar with stickers on their kids’ clothes. No matter how hard you try, that adhesive seals itself into the fabric after a run through the dryer and you’re stuck with a shadow version of the sticker forever.
The same is true for athletes, particularly those who are dogged with a label of being lazy or selfish or for not being able to play a particular position. I’l admit that I once felt that way about Ian Happ, a man I’ve referred to more than once as a square peg rounding out the Cubs roster.
As Bruce Miles laid out in the Daily Herald, the stereotypes about Happ ran that whole gamut when he was playing at the University of Cincinnati. And the worst part of it was that the Bearcats’ coach at the time may have been responsible for some of the negative views of his star player.
“There were a lot of inaccurate narratives from the defensive side, that I was just a hitter and didn’t have a position when I was actually playing all positions,” Happ told Miles. “I was a little bit unfortunate in my college career to have a coach who didn’t think I could play the infield, which hurt me, a coach that moved me to right field my junior year. That was tough.”
It wasn’t just a matter of being viewed as a certain type of player, either.
“That was definitely a difficult part for me my last year, my college career when our new staff and that coach really didn’t believe that I could play multiple positions and even took me out of the lineup a lot,” Happ lamented. “I got stereotyped with having a bad reputation, just as not a team guy because of some of the stuff that [my coach] did. He thought I was selfish, and I hope that stereotype has been taken away.”
Oof, doesn’t sound like Happ will be inviting Ty Neal, the coach in question, to any Cubs games as a special guest. Neal’s first season as UC’s head coach was in 2014, Happ’s sophomore year, and he would eventually step down late May of the 2017 season due to the ubiquitous and amorphous “personal reasons.” Three months later, which seems like a pretty quick turnaround, Neal was named the pitching coach at Georgia State.
I bring that up not to speculate any further than necessary on Neal’s motivation for leaving — if it was even his choice at all — but to bring things back around to the mental side of the game that has been such a foundational aspect of the Cubs organization in the Epstein regime. Mental skills aren’t just part of the team’s development program, they’re also paramount when it comes to amateur scouting.
As such, it may have seemed a little odd when the Cubs used their first pick in the 2015 draft to select a player who had been labeled as something of a malcontent. Ah, but that’s why it’s so important to look at more than just surface-level stuff or to much too much stock in the gossip going around.
“There was kind of a false narrative about Ian out there,” Epstein explained to Miles. “So our scouts did a great job of digging deeper. Daniel Carte, the area scout, really got to know him well and kind of saw through some of the labels that were floating around about him.
“It was a time of some change and turmoil at that program. So some of the players were in a tough position. You didn’t necessarily come away from seeing that team or him play and think there was a lot of energy and a lot of focus there [emphasis mine]. So you had to get beyond what was going on over there at the time.”
I wanted to draw attention to that particular line because it’s inconceivable to anyone who’s watched Happ play over the last few years that he’d ever be associated with a lack of energy. If anything, he throws off kind of a whirling dervish vibe and could even be accused at times of having too much energy.
The lack of focus thing, though, is a lot less incongruous a concept to apply to him. A lot of that can be laid at the feet of Happ’s former coach, but it’s also largely a function of maturity and comfort with his role. As Happ stated during spring training, a greater understanding of and dedication to his craft has resulted in a much better feel for the game.
“I’m definitely leaner and in a more comfortable spot where I feel like I can go out, run around and be more agile,” Happ explained. “I’ve been working out pretty diligently since high school, but it was more of a football-based strength program because that’s just what a lot of colleges are into. Getting to pro ball and being able to work with someone who really focused on the mobility side and injury prevention, you get into a spot where every day you’re focused on being agile and limber.”
Of course, the journey is far from over when it comes to settling in and becoming the type of mature hitter who can really hold down the top of the order on a regular basis. Take that season-opening home run, for instance. As great a moment as that was for Happ and the Cubs, it may have put the young slugger in a pull-happy mode and gotten him out of his normal approach.
Not that Happ’s normal approach will ever be that of a traditional top-of-the-order guy, he’s just not going to continue striking out at a 55 percent clip while trying to hit every pitch into the seats. He’s young enough that his production is still fluid, sloshing back and forth and even making a mess now and again. But just as water eventually finds its level, so will Happ settle into a groove.
If you’re still on the fence about the switch-hitting outfielder, know that you are neither the first or last to feel that way. He’s kind of got this thing about proving people wrong, though, so doubt him at your own peril.