After what might’ve felt like an eternity to him, Ian Happ finally returned to the big league club this past weekend after spending the entirety of the season at Triple-A Iowa. While he wasn’t able to record his first major league hit of the year, Happ managed to leave his mark on the Cubs offense anyway by drawing four walks, including three on Sunday.
“The walks to Happ killed us today,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell lamented after Sunday’s game. “No question about it. We did a poor job on him.”
In his short big league career, that ability to work a disciplined plate appearance and draw walks has been perhaps the most important part of the versatile Happ’s game. By reaching base four times and scoring a trio of runs over the weekend, he was able to generate meaningful value without the benefit of a hit. Even if his swing is slumping, he can avoid being the kind of black hole that the Cubs have had in their lineup far too often this year.
Happ’s 2018 performance offers a great example of the value generated by his plate approach. While declines in both his power and contact resulted in a season that was generally viewed as a step back from a solid rookie season, he managed to compile what most overall offensive metrics (.329 wOBA, 106 wRC+) rated as an average to slightly above-average campaign anyway.
How’d he do that? Walks, of course.
Happ walked in 15.2% of his plate appearances, falling just short of Kyle Schwarber‘s 15.3% for the team lead. He was also the least likely Cub to offer a pitches out of the zone. By swinging at only 24.7% of those offerings, he demonstrated an ability to consistently lay off of pitches that he wouldn’t be likely to do anything with anyway.
Far from a fluke, Happ maintained that exact same walk rate during his time in the minors despite noted struggles with his swing. For the sake of reference, only six qualified hitters in MLB have a higher rate as of post time.
Ian Happ had a 15.2 BB% last year and 15.2 BB% at Triple-A this year. He walks at an elite level.
Only 7 qualified hitters in MLB have a higher walk percentage than that mark right now. https://t.co/3bjh574J2z
— Matt Clapp (@TheBlogfines) July 28, 2019
That patience was both a blessing and a curse, as it also led to excessive strikeout numbers resulting from an at times being too selective. Among the things Happ worked on in the minors was being more selectively aggressive early in counts and then improving his “B-hack,” or contact-focused secondary swing.
While it would’ve been nice to see him return with more of a bang, this past weekend in Milwaukee reminded us of the value provided by a player like Happ. The bottom of the order’s inability to generate any kind of consistent value has been one of the defining struggles of the Cubs offense this year. Happ’s ability to generate value even when his bat isn’t at his best is one of many reasons that he can be an asset down the stretch.
All of that said, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get that home run swing going soon, too.