In his first few spring games, Ian Happ has walloped four home runs in only 18 plate appearances, including three leadoff homers. It’s enough to make one wonder if Happ could really slot into the leadoff spot more regularly for the 2018 Cubs, as Joe Maddon continues to search for a player to fill that role vacated by Dexter Fowler after 2016. It’s also enough to make one wonder if Happ should supplant Albert Almora, Jason Heyward, or Ben Zobrist more often at center field, right field, or second base.
Of course, spring training means nothing, both statistically and existentially. It’s a fool who falls in love with spring training stats. But Happ has piqued my interest and set my gears into motion, things I did not expect from the Cincinnati alumnus. That’s because there’s a bit of a gulf between the skills Happ has exhibited at the major-league level (namely, lots of power), and the skills for which he was known when he was drafted and as he quickly ascended through the minor leagues. It’s this disparity that I would like to address today, in the context of how Happ might fit the 2018 club, what we might expect from him this season, and how he might improve.
Happ is perhaps the most enigmatically positioned player on the Cubs roster at present: a man without a true defensive position who hits for good power, but who so far lacks a solid approach and stares up at several players on the depth chart. With Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, and Jason Heyward penciled in as starters across the outfield, Javier Baez securing his starting spot at second base, and Ben Zobrist still hanging around, Happ figures to be Maddon’s malleable mitt this year; however, he could just as easily find himself unjustifiably benched in favor of Almora or Heyward, two players Happ will almost certainly outperform offensively.
So, a quick assessment of Ian Happ, Major-League Hitter: last year he hit .253/.328/.514, good for a solid 114 OPS+ and .284 TAv. His 24 homers would have been a new record for a switch-hitting rookie in the National League, had fellow rookie Josh Bell not hit 26. Happ, though, reached that total in over 200 fewer plate appearances, as he cruised to a .261 isolated power mark. While his 129 strikeouts resulted in an untenable 31 percent strikeout rate (higher than Kris Bryant in his rookie season), his 9.4 percent walk rate was nearly a full point better than league average.
That’s a pretty good player! WAR metrics didn’t like the 23-year-old very much due to his poor defense, not helped by Maddon slotting him in at center field and second base for 346 ⅔ innings and 260 ⅓ innings, respectively—positions that Happ plays much worse than he does the corner outfield. Still, Happ was worth about two wins in all three primary WAR frameworks, and in only 413 plate appearances. He was already an above-average major leaguer in 2017, which provided some necessary insurance as Schwarber and Zobrist both cratered offensively.
The big question, then: will Happ continue to be an above-average player for the Chicago Cubs? PECOTA seems to think so, pegging him for two or three wins per season for the next decade. That’s on the back of his offensive profile, which the system gauges as low-average, average-OBP, and above-average slugging. This is where we run into some complications, as most evaluators and scouts did not foresee Happ as this type of player on the offensive side.
When he was drafted out of Cincinnati in 2015 as the ninth overall pick by a savvy Cubs organization which has now shuffled its last five first rounders to the major leagues, Happ impressed with his polished game. The Pittsburgh native didn’t have a standout tool like the team’s other first round picks (Baez’s power, Almora’s glove, Schwarber’s hit tool, Kris Bryant’s everything). Rather, he showed above-average skills across the board, and was poised to move up the minor league ranks quickly as a former college position player. If Happ had a standout tool, it was his hit tool: evaluators praised his feel for the strike zone and his mature approach at the plate. To them, it indicated the ability to hit for a solid average and post a high on-base percentage while knocking 15-or-so out of the park.
Through his short time in the minors, Happ generally fulfilled that promise. He struck out more often than one would have liked, but he managed solid on-base numbers with above-average pop. By the time he emerged as the Cubs’ Swiss Army knife in 2017, though, Happ began to slug like Anthony Rizzo. He posted a batting average and on-base percentage that were both almost exactly league-average, while slugging 80 points better than the league in an inflated offensive environment.
What gives? I’m not entirely sure, really, and I don’t know if player evaluators or scouts know either, except that Happ took advantage of the juiced ball. In the minors, Happ actually shortened his swing, making it more compact and less loopy, in an effort to maximize his hit tool and leave fewer holes open to exploitation by pitchers. In the majors, he was exploited in those ways regardless of his altered swing: breaking balls and high fastballs baffled Happ, while anything hard around the knees was ticketed for green grass or metal bleachers.
If Happ can make good on his pedigree, he can turn into an All-Star. Adding points to his batting average or on-base percentage would result in an extremely well-rounded hitter, even if his power numbers come down, closer to where they were projected to be. Can he make the changes necessary to become such a hitter? Again, I’m not sure, and because he’s a low-fastball hitter, he might always find success earlier in the count than he would if he upped his pitches per plate appearance. Surely, Chili Davis and the Cubs’ coaching staff are working with Happ on ways to shore up his offensive game and make him into the player he looked like he could become out of college. With improvements on defense—not a foregone conclusion, but a possibility given more reps and a steadier positional workload—Happ could become an even more valuable part of the Cubs than Schwarber or Almora.
Where does that leave the erstwhile Bearcat going into 2018? Well, if you’ve checked my Twitter account (hint: don’t do this), you’ll know that I’ve advocated for Happ getting a good chunk of starts in right field, pushing Heyward to center. Until Happ can complement his impressive speed with better outfield instincts, he is not a fit in center field, and he is blocked at second base by Baez’s impeccable defense and emerging bat. At Wrigley Field, however, right field is the difficult sun field, and center field is smaller due to short power alleys. There might be an opportunity to find his center field legs at home while being protected on the road from treacherous, big gaps like the ones at PNC Park.
On the offensive side, Happ might just be the Cubs’ solution to their leadoff woes. While Maddon has said he would like to try Schwarber in that spot once again, Happ has proven to be a more consistent overall hitter with speed, making him more attractive than the lefty masher. Happ should garner more starts at the corner spots and at leadoff, and if he figures out an approach at the plate, he should remain there. If not—well, he’ll be useful in other ways.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports