Update: The Cubs must have read this piece, since Happ has been promoted. You’re welcome.
Ian Happ’s season hasn’t played out the way anyone could have predicted back in February. The Cubs probably expected that a little time in Iowa would give him a chance to patch the holes in his swing so they could call him back up to help the big club for a few months. But here we are near the end of July and Happ is still in Iowa while the Cubs continue to search for answers to their offensive soft spots at second base and center field.
It’s almost as though the Cubs gave Happ a GPS to help him find his way, after which he promptly threw the device against the wall in his anger over having been optioned. So he had to set his pride aside, buy an actual map from a local service station — the kind that still has rotary numbers on the pumps — and plot a meandering course back to Chicago.
That analogy may not be real, but Happ’s anger was absolutely genuine and it was something he had to work through before meaningful change could really take place.
“The acceptance and getting past the fact that you’re not there was definitely difficult,” Happ told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic back in June. “I think being able to work with [minor-league hitting coordinator Chris] Valaika and have him with me for the first few weeks to work with helped.
“When the success wasn’t there left-handed, he helped me continue to figure out what the next steps were to work back to a place where I felt comfortable in the box.”
At the time, there were fears that Happ might never be able to get comfortable again. He slashed .188/.316/.313 for the month of June and struck out 35 times with 17 walks in 96 at-bats. If there’s one thing you really need to know about minor league baseball, though, it’s that stats don’t tell the whole story of a player’s development.
As useful as they are as a barometer, they don’t always explain what a player is working on and how he’s progressing in areas that simply aren’t visible to the general public. For instance, Happ’s highly elevated groundball rate through April made it appear on the surface as though his power was gone. But it was actually an indication that he was focusing on a more controlled swing aimed at generating more situational contact.
“It’s a retooling of his swing more than anything,” Valaika told Sharma. “You hear us talk about the ‘A’ swing and the ‘B’ swing. That ‘A’ swing is the one that’s going to create that loft, that’s the early-in-the-count swing, the one we’re looking to do damage on.
“But then the one where we take that trade-off, he might be on the ground more, that’s the ‘B’ swing, that two-strike approach where he needs to cover the top of the zone more or situational hitting moments where he has to put the ball in play to move a runner or get a guy in from third. It’s two different swings for two different moments.”
There typically isn’t a singular moment in which things just click, though sometimes you can see trends shift if you look box scores and game logs. For Happ, that may have come on or near June 26, when he started a modest four-game hit streak. After going hitless over his next two, he collected 12 hits over seven games and has continued that tear throughout July.
After smacking a pair of singles in his first two at-bats Wednesday night, he is hitting .324 (24-for-74) with a 1.059 OPS and five homers on the month. What’s more, Happ has only struck out 19 times against 17 walks in that time. Even if you abide by my earlier caveat about stats, it would appear as though things are starting to come together.
“At the beginning of the season, the mind wasn’t right,” Iowa hitting coach Desi Wilson recently told Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register. “He was somewhere else mentally. And I think now, he’s there.
“I see it in his at-bat, regardless of the results. He knows what he’s doing. He knows how he feels, and he knows what he needs to do to repeat that same feel.”
The two most important words Wilson shared there are “feel” and “repeat.” Strip away all the advanced metrics and old-school buzzwords and the simple truth is that success in baseball is based on the ability to repeat the same mechanics, whether you’re pitching or hitting, so that the effort feels right. That’s different for every player, but Happ had completely lost his feel this spring.
In order to help him get it back, as Birch wrote, Wilson had Happ watch video of his swing from his breakout 2017 season. Happ burst on the scene and forced the Cubs’ hand, largely because he was playing confident and loose. He didn’t know what he didn’t know and wasn’t going into his plate appearances pressing for a certain outcome. Becoming that hitter again would be huge for both Happ and the Cubs.
With each home run and multi-hit game, the questions about Happ’s continued absence from the big team grow louder. And without much noise coming from the bats of Daniel Descalso and Albert Almora Jr., there’s really nothing to silence them. His Wednesday laser shot aside, Almora has been one of baseball’s worst offensive performers over the last year. And Descalso, well, we don’t really need to drag him any further.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as recalling Happ and either optioning Almora or designating Descalso for assignment. Not yet, anyway. Some have suggested that service-time motives are at play, though that seems a little far-fetched if we agree that the Cubs never intended for Happ to be in Iowa this long. And why would the front office care about getting an extra of control that wouldn’t come for three years after their own contracts are set to expire?
Though that possibility grows more plausible with each day Happ remains at Triple-A — he’d have to stay there through August 30, if you were wondering — Occam’s razor offers a simpler answer. The longer Happ struggled, the more expendable he became. By the time his performance had rebounded sufficiently and he looked like a viable option to once again help in Chicago, his name was almost certainly being brought up in trade talks.
So rather than call him up and risk either the diminution of that value via exposure or upsetting the clubhouse by trading him away posthaste, the Cubs may simply see discretion as the better part of valor. An extra week or two in Iowa won’t have a negative impact on Happ, even though it’s been apparent on more than one occasion that the Cubs could have used an extra bench bat with pop or a little more speed on the bases.
They should have that one or another by the end of the month, as any number of different trade targets would significantly improve the roster. Or maybe the Cubs treat the deadline like they did this past winter and basically sit things out due to financial concerns. One path likely sees Happ traded, the other could see him featured as the primary center fielder down the stretch. We should know for sure by August 1 which one the Cubs are taking.
If Happ hasn’t been recalled by the end of the upcoming series in St. Louis, then we can talk all you want about service time and production over talent.