After Looking Like Turkey for Months, Ian Happ Going HAM to Get Cheddar

Is there anything better for a blogger than being able to recycle a topic and keep the content mill churning? It was just two weeks ago that I wrote about Ian Happ‘s turnaround being cause for optimism, a concept that was met with at least as much derision and disbelief as hope. But here we are on September 10 and Happ just keeps mashing.

In 52 plate appearances since that last piece, Happ is hitting .365 with six homers and 12 RBI. He has five multi-hit games in that stretch, including three three-hit games, after putting up nine multi-hit games in 397 previous plate appearances. And three of those efforts came in the 10 days before the piece, meaning he’s had eight multi-hit games since August 17 compared to just six over the first four and a half months of the season.

Through August 11 (350 PAs): .175/.284/.318, 69 wRC+, 11 HR, 28 RBI
From Aug 12-Sept 8 (99 PAs): .362/.394/.755, 202 wRC+, 10 HR, 22 RBI

As noted previously, one of the reasons for the improvement is Happ “finding a way to get some of that offspeed stuff in the air.” Getting good results led to greater confidence, which is clearly a huge part of his continued success even if it can’t really be measured. It may be a matter of chicken and egg, but Happ is also being much more aggressive at the plate during this hot stretch.

Over the course of that long slump, his 30.6% strikeout rate and 12.3% walk rate were within about half a percentage point of his career averages. Since then, however, his strikeouts have dipped a little to 29.3% while his walks have plummeted to an uncharacteristically low 5.1% as he jumps on more pitches. To me, that may be the simplest way to quantify his increased swagger and intent.

I don’t want to say Happ was actually going up there feeling defeated early on because I’m not him and I can’t purport to know what’s going on in his head. That said, his body language seemed to be saying what he might not have been willing or able to admit publicly, which is that he simply didn’t believe in himself. While that might not be entirely fair, it may have been a matter of overthinking things and letting the busybody part of his brain dictate what he was doing.

Maybe he was looking for a perfect pitch until finding himself behind in the count, at which point he was at a disadvantage. And if a hitter is telling himself he’s in trouble, he’s much more likely to fulfill his own prophecy. Patience was actually the enemy in that case, probably because it gave Happ too much time to think. Being more aggressive keeps that from happening.

You can see the change in his plate discipline numbers, namely how his 42.5% swing rate and 12.8% swinging strike rate through 350 PAs have jumped to 48.5% and 15.2% over the last 99 PAs. I hope no one is making like Rick Dalton and pointing to those increases as red flags because they’re exactly the opposite. The ratio of whiffs to swings may be up ever so slightly, but his strikeouts are down.

That tells us Happ is swinging earlier in the count with greater frequency, a fact I suppose we also could have sussed out from the decrease in walks. As a big swing-and-miss guy his whole career, Happ isn’t going to get a lot to hit once he gets two strikes. Even if he’s got three balls, pitchers typically aren’t going to throw him a challenge fastball. So if he’s able to maintain an approach that sees him looking to ambush pitches earlier, he can prevent opponents from exploiting his weaknesses.

Pitchers will inevitably adjust, which is where the confidence comes in. Mechanical changes like the ones he made to handle offspeed are obviously paramount, but just knowing you’re able to handle whatever is thrown at you allows for real-time alterations to swing and approach while also facilitating more macro shifts. If the Cubs believe Happ can keep smooth things out a bit more moving forward, he’s no longer the DFA candidate he looked like into August.

Consider that over his last 680 plate appearances, basically a full season for an everyday player near the top of the order, Happ has hit 33 homers with 78 RBI, a 110 wRC+, and a .335 wOBA. Even though that’s not elite-level production, it’s pretty darn good. It’s also dragged down by the struggles this season and a stretch last season in which a foul ball to the eye hampered his September production.

It’s intellectually dishonest to disregard 437 plate appearances in an attempt to prove a point, but what if either the physical or psychological effects of that freak play lingered well into 2021? That’s not at all unreasonable and could help to explain either Happ’s apparent lack of confidence or the possible inability to see the ball as clearly as a major league hitter has to in order to be successful.

Rather than linger further on speculation, I’ll leave off saying that Happ is hitting as well as anyone in the game right now and has shown similar flashes in the past as well. Now it’s a matter of avoiding those deep, prolonged slumps that almost void the hot streaks. A little more consistency and the return of the designated hitter to the NL would mean Happ is absolutely sticking around with the Cubs for a while longer.

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