Look, I know all the batting average honks out there are already pointing and yelling, “.198!” as they read the headline and probably didn’t even reach the lede. That’s cool, it comes with the territory. What also comes with the territory is finding ways to discuss a team that was playing its way to nowhere even before the deadline saw the Cubs trade a shovel for a backhoe.
That’s why I’m writing about Ian Happ, who is both cheap and young enough to be a part of whatever Jed Hoyer has planned for the future. To say that Happ has been inconsistent over the course of his career is what we in the business call an understatement, but that’s also a big part of what makes him intriguing. It may also be a big part of what will suppress his salary enough to make sense for Hoyer’s budget.
Without chronicling each season, I think it makes sense to recount how Happ struggled in 2019 and then spent most of the 2019 season at Triple-A before hitting like gangbusters upon his promotion. He then opened the 2020 season on an MVP-level tear before a foul ball bounced up and hit him in the eye. His numbers have tanked since then and currently sit at career lows across nearly every statistical measurement.
That includes an 85 wRC+ that says he’s 15% worse than the average hitter and a -0.1 fWAR that says a player called up from the minors would be more productive. Okay, so how is that dude worth keeping for even a repeat of his $4.1 million price tag, let alone a potential raise for 2022? Why would the Cubs tender him a contract at all?
First, they only have three players under guaranteed deals for next season and — barring a work stoppage due to the CBA — they have a field a roster. So while Happ will be more expensive than someone they might call up from the minors, his upside is probably greater than anyone they could sign for a similar cost.
That upside is starting to show in August, particularly over the last two weeks. As Jordan Bastian pointed out both on Twitter and for MLB.com, Happ has made some adjustments to improve his production significantly. A big part of that is “finding a way to get some of that offspeed stuff in the air,” which has helped him slug four homers and four doubles over 47 plate appearances.
Though it can’t really be quantified, Happ just looks like a more confident hitter these days. Maybe it’s revisionist perception or confirmation bias, but there was something about his body language earlier in the season that said he felt defeated as he was stepping into the box. Actually, there might be some numbers that confirm a different approach and mentality.
Through his first 350 plate appearances, Happ was walking at a 12.3% clip and striking out 30.6% of the time, neither of which is out of line with his career norms. However, his looking strikeout percentage of 24.4% was up nearly four ticks over last season despite taking fewer overall strikes. He was also generating fewer swinging strikes than at any point in his career.
Maybe it was just a silent tribute to Kyle Schwarber, who loved him a called third strike. Okay, it probably wasn’t that intentional, though I do believe Happ was working with a more patient approach that slid into passivity at some point. In the sample Bastian pointed out, Happ is walking at a 10.6% rate and striking out at a 25.5% rate as he jumps on more pitches earlier in the count.
Even if you don’t want to put faith in fewer than 50 PAs, it’s pretty clear that’s a more productive strategy in general. It’s also a sign that Happ is more confident at the plate, something he confirmed to the media recently.
“It’s just trying to find a way to get on time,” Happ said. “Finding a way to be on time and trusting that when you’re on time, you’re going to have the ability to have success. There’s a couple mechanical things that are kind of falling in place.”
Did you catch the part about trust? That’s huge. It’s also what the Cubs are going to have to have in Happ’s turnaround, which is far from complete. Should he be able to maintain these numbers through the remainder of the season, their decision is an easy one. Of course, there’s also the notion that his production has suddenly jumped because there’s zero pressure.
If you’re into that whole jam, you might also wonder why his stats were good late in a 2019 season that saw the Cubs miss the playoffs and then early in 2020 before people started really talking about how well he was playing. I’m not sure how much merit the front office would really put into such things, though I don’t think we can completely discount the obviously psychological aspects of a very cerebral game.
Happ can still be a very good ballplayer, it’s really just a matter of finding and maintaining the confidence to blend patience with aggressiveness. His ability to do that would make Hoyer’s job a lot easier over the next two winters. Now they just need to do something about all those empty seats at Wrigley.