In a first half packed with disappointment and mediocrity from all aspects of the roster, Ian Happ has represented a true bright spot for the Chicago Cubs. He’s hit up and down the lineup, leading the team in isolated power, at .290, and trailing only Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in OPS (.870). While it hasn’t been without his struggles, Happ has gone from surefire trade chip for pitching to a player who may have forced his way into the long-term picture on the North Side with his impact bat. Not that anything is guaranteed in that regard, as anything is likely on the table for the starting pitching-starved Cubs. Nonetheless, he’s been a far more impactful player at this juncture in his career than anyone could have anticipated.
Most of the notoriety that Happ has received thus far has, deservedly, come due to his bat. In addition to the strong power numbers, he’s progressively getting better the longer he’s at the Major League level. He cut his strikeout rate by about four percent from May to June and had it down another 10 percent in July heading into the All-Star break. Subsequently, he has seen steady improvement in almost every major statistical category, with his average, on-base percentage, and ISO, among others, all experiencing significant improvement from the first to the second month and through his 34 plate appearances in the month of July.
Simply put: the kid can hit. It’s why he’s still here. But what is perhaps more impressive is that he’s played relatively strong defense at multiple positions. Originally a second baseman, the Cubs transitioned Happ to the outfield upon drafting him in order to increase his versatility. There was some talk of giving him a run at third and maybe even shortstop in the minor leagues earlier this season, but that never materialized, which is probably at least partially due to his earlier-than-expected call to the big leagues. Not only has he shown the versatility, appearing at four different positions, but he hasn’t looked particularly overmatched in any of them.
In retrospect, it’s somewhat surprising that the bulk of the starts for Happ have come in centerfield. The corner outfield spots represented more instability than was expected, primarily due to Kyle Schwarber’s demotion and Jason Heyward’s injury, leaving Jon Jay to fill in. Combine that with Joe Maddon’s apparent refusal to play Albert Almora, and it probably isn’t all that shocking at all. Nonetheless, Happ has made 22 starts in center, logging 188.0 innings overall.
By FanGraphs’ Defensive rating metric, Happ ranks at just about the middle of the pack, with a Def rating of -0.3 that puts him in 11th among 23 National League players that have appeared in at least 150 innings in that position. While UZR doesn’t look upon him too favorably, the sample is entirely too small to utilize that as a reliable stat. As such, his Defensive Runs Saved represents a positive aspect, with his DRS of 1 ranking him 9th out of that same group. He hasn’t showcased the range that some of his counterparts in centerfield have, with a Revised Zone Rating of only .875 that ranks him 20th out of 23, and his 12 Out of Zone plays made rank him 21st. The important thing is that he hasn’t looked out of place out there for the most part. He’s not as rangy and his arm strength doesn’t play terribly well in the outfield, but an RZR of .875 grades out as above average, according to FanGraphs. So there’s certainly something to be said for that.
Even more encouraging is the fact that Happ has looked quite good at second base, with the metrics favoring him against other second basemen in the National League. Across 119.1 innings at the position, he’s come in with a DRS of 2 and a RZR of .807. Those figures have him ranking eighth and sixth, respectively, among players with at least 110 innings at the position. And while an RZR of that nature may not seem overly impressive, even ranking near the top of the position, he’s only had 31 balls hit in his zone, according to FanGraphs, so it’s not as if the sample is tremendous across those almost-120 innings.
The corner outfield spots have represented a similar level of consistency for Happ. He has an RZR of 1.000 at each position, with -1 DRS at each in just a touch over 40 innings both in left and in right. It’s a small sample, and he doesn’t demonstrate a ton of range, but he’s provided stability for a Cubs outfield that has sorely needed it due to injury and performance issues.
There isn’t a whole lot of mystery to Ian Happ’s defensive game. He’s athletic enough to play all over the place, as evidenced by him playing all three outfield spots and some second base. It’ll be interesting to see if that versatility is expanded at all in the offseason, assuming he’s still here . Regardless, his ability to move around the field in order to keep his bat in the lineup has been impressive, given his ability to effectively perform at each spot. He’s not a defensive wizard and is still something of a work in progress, especially in the outfield, but he’s providing steady play wherever Joe Maddon puts him. The value of something like that, especially on a team that has experienced so much turmoil, cannot be overstated.
There’s likely an element of oversimplification here, in discussing Happ’s defense, and there’s obviously a level of questioning as to the reliability of the metrics. Regardless, it’d probably be unreasonable to expect Ian Happ to emerge as a defensive star anytime soon, given the development that that aspect of his game still needs, in conjunction with the fact that Joe Maddon is bouncing him around as often as he is. Lack of elite defensive upside notwithstanding, Happ has proven that he can be moved around and relied upon in doing so, which is absolutely paramount given how badly the Cubs have needed his bat this year. His value, whether to the Cubs or a prospective team with young starting pitching, has certainly gone up as a result.
**Defensive Metric Data via FanGraphs