Ian Happ looks to have solidified his place in the lineup—at least for now—as the Cubs’ lead-off hitter. But while Happ has earned the chance to be in the lineup every day, it’s unclear exactly where he fits in the field.
The Cubs will likely start the 2018 season with an outfield comprised of Kyle Schwarber, Happ, and Jason Heyward giving them a below-average left fielder, an average center fielder, and a perennial Gold Glove right fielder.
Why keep Happ in center field? Besides not having another place to play him, they’re probably hoping for the same result that the Seattle Mariners are hoping for with Dee Gordon in center field: they want to let him roam around the outfield and use his speed/athleticism to track down balls until he develops some more instincts. While he wasn’t horrendous in 2017, Happ showed last season that the nuance of the position may be a bit much for him. To his credit, though, he had only played 99 games there in three minor league seasons before his call-up in 2017, so he could improve.
While Heyward hasn’t been the offensive force the Cubs had hoped for during his tenure in Chicago, his defensive prowess has been as good as advertised. And Heyward has not just been good: he has been the best defensive right fielder in the game over the last seven seasons. Since his debut in 2010, he leads all right fielders with 131 defensive runs saved and leads the next player on that list by a wide margin (Mookie Betts, with 61). Last season, he was the fourth-ranked right fielder by FRAA after a somewhat disappointing 2016 in that metric, but by all accounts the former Atlanta and St. Louis star is playing with aplomb, as expected. Importantly, Heyward also has a significant amount of major-league experience in center field, totaling 493 1/3 innings there in his career. He’s not as good there as he is in right, and those who evaluate talent and who work on defensive metrics have not yet cracked the code on the shift in value experienced by someone like Heyward moving positions.
However, Heyward is the whole package as a right fielder, and his skills appear to translate well to center. A center fielder not only captains the outfield; they also have the most ground to cover. Why wouldn’t a club want their best outfielder playing center? Especially with one outfielder being below-average (Schwarber) and the other being average to slightly below-average (Happ).
Moving Heyward to center field would be the right decision for the Cubs, considering their current personnel and the team’s offensive composition.
It would improve the team in two ways. It gives the better defensive outfielder more responsibility and gives Schwarber and Happ less room to cover in the outfield while they hone their crafts. While both have worked this offseason to get better at their respective positions, neither of them are natural outfielders, and this would take a bit of the pressure off their performances. The Cubs have let each of them learn the positions at the major league level, and it would be to their benefit to have Heyward as a security blanket in center. There is, of course, the added benefit of allowing Happ to play more often if he is the everyday right fielder, and his bat figures to be an important piece of the Cubs’ offensive puzzle in 2018 and beyond. The benefits of moving Heyward to center are discrete and clear.
The goal is to convert as many balls hit to the outfield into outs as possible, and moving Heyward to center field would give the Cubs a better chance of doing that. Depending on how Heyward hits to begin the season, this same plan could also work with Albert Almora in center and Schwarber and Happ in the corners when necessary, but we’ll see how that plays out.
The downside of making this move is that you take what is normally an elite, perennial Gold Glove winner and turn him into maybe a just-good center fielder. While he has played there in his career and been adequate (7 DRS in those 493 innings), he’s been so good in right that you actually decrease his value with him as a center fielder. There’s the rub. In the end, though, the Cubs’ current situation doesn’t seem tenable, and giving Heyward an opportunity to show what he can do in center is the best option for the value of each of the Cubs’ outfielders long-term.
Manager Joe Maddon is sometimes stubborn when it comes to getting his players out of their comfort zone, and this move is unlikely, but it would have positive effects his club’s overall defense. And his pitchers would likely thank him for it as well.
Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports