For a while there, it looked like Ian Happ was being left for dead in Iowa. Or maybe that he was being left there just long enough to build up enough trade value to bring something back at the deadline. Turns out neither was the case, though Happ’s sporadic playing time hasn’t spoken volumes about his manager’s faith in him. That will change for at least the next series after Happ provided more value in a single game than several once and future Cubs have offered over much larger samples.
After getting 19 plate appearances over five consecutive starts beginning with his August 26 call-up, Happ’s name didn’t appear in the starting lineup in any of the next six games. He still managed to make the most of his limited work, recording four hits in just eight plate appearances. Two of those came Tuesday night when he entered the Cubs’ blowout loss as a defensive replacement at second base.
His four innings there were the most he’d played for the Cubs since the 2017 season, which is at least a little strange considering how he was being deployed toward the end of his Triple-A tenure. Between the Cubs’ decided lack of production at second and the respective departures of Daniel Descalso (10-day IL), Addison Russell (option), not to mention Robel Garcia’s flagging production, Happ figured to see time on the infield.
But Garcia continued to make starts at second, including three inexplicable times in the leadoff spot that saw him strike out eight times in 15 plate appearances, before being optioned back to Iowa to make room for Nicholas Castellanos. Rather than open a door for Happ, the Cubs’ deadline moves are what relegated him to the bench. Between Castellanos in the outfield and Tony Kemp at second, starting spots grew more scarce.
Not that it hurt Happ’s production. In just 27 plate appearances, he accumulated 0.3 fWAR on the strength of two extra-base hits and four runs scored. Descalso had exactly zero non-singles with one RBI and three runs scored over his last 60 plate appearances. The veteran utilityman had been playing perfectly acceptable baseball before an ankle injury derailed his season, resulting in an aggregate -0.6 fWAR that made him unplayable long before a delayed decision to shelve him.
Descalso is easily the Cubs’ worst offensive producer this season, but he’s not alone when it comes to disappointing results. Carlos González (-0.3), Mark Zagunis (-0.2), and Albert Almora Jr. (0.0) have all failed to provide positive value, while Garcia (0.1) and Ben Zobrist (0.1) just barely made an impact. Each of those players notched at least 39 plate appearances, combining for 747 in all, which has netted the Cubs a total of -0.9 fWAR.
Even before Happ exploded for a second consecutive two-hit night that included a grand slam to break Wednesday’s game open, he’d already been more valuable than anyone in that group with far less playing time. Of course, so had Jon Lester. Hell, Happ’s most recent performance alone provided as much value as any of the aforementioned players. At 0.4 fWAR, he now ranks as the Cubs’ 10th most valuable position player, and with at least 120 fewer plate appearances than everyone above him on the list.
“My at-bats have been really good,” Happ said Wednesday. “I feel really comfortable up there, and I want to keep it rolling.”
He has credited his time in Triple-A with helping him get his confidence back, but that only came after moving past his understandable frustration with being left off of the Opening Day roster. It took time for Happ to move through that and to really accept the need to break himself down before building his swing and his confidence back up.
It wasn’t until July that things really started to fall into place for him, which is why the Cubs waited as long as they did to bring him back. Then he had to deal with being given a lower priority than the new guys brought in via trade, though it sounds like Happ has been moved up the list and is going to get plenty of run during the four-game set in Cincinnati.
“He is really not missing his pitch right now,” Maddon told the media after Wednesday’s game. “Ian has had a pretty good history in that city. He went to university there. You will see him play there.”
So much for that whole thing about Maddon not believing in the hot hand, huh? Then again, it’s less about trying to ride a streak and more just giving a guy his due. Despite the flaws in his game and his swing, Happ has always been a dynamic athlete who can work a solid plate appearance while providing pop from both sides of the plate. As such, his margin for error is much greater than most and he can really lengthen the lineup when he’s batting seventh like he did Wednesday afternoon.
With six more road games following the Cincy series, Happ maintaining anything even close to what he’s done so far will help the Cubs avoid further embarrassment away from Wrigley. Then maybe we can stop asking why they’re playing so poorly as the visitors and start wondering why Happ wasn’t playing more frequently sooner.