Ian Happ is going to play an important role for the Chicago Cubs this season, but that time is not now.
The start to the 2018 season has not been what the Cubs wanted or expected out of their switch-hitting infielder/outfielder, but that’s the hand the team and Happ have been dealt. Happ’s issues at the plate have don’t appear to be mechanical, as the swing from 2017 is identical to the swing in 2018, but Happ has looked outmatched.
Joe Maddon’s decision to make Ian Happ the lead-off hitter out of spring training wasn’t a bad one and looked to be the right move, until the season started. Like Kyle Schwarber in 2017, right or wrong, the experiment failed, Happ sputtered offensively, and has yet to get himself together through 34 games.
Among players with a minimum of 100 plate appearances, Happ leads the league in strikeout rate—fanning in 45 percent of his at-bats—and the way things have snowballed recently, it’s hard to imagine that number coming down significantly anytime soon.
While Schwarber got a chance to try to adjust to the lead-off spot, Happ got a quicker hook. Not only are their situations similar, but through 34 games, the numbers are eerily similar as well.
While it remains to be seen what the Cubs’ front office will do to in response to Happ’s start at the plate, the best move to benefit both the Cubs and Happ would be to sending him down to Triple-A.
The solid start by Albert Almora Jr. has also thrown a level of uncertainty into the Cubs’ plans for Happ. Almora Jr. has played his usual strong defense in center field, but has also continued to show vast improvements at the plate which includes hitting .280 against right-handed pitching, which has been the knock on him throughout his career. Ben Zobrist and Schwarber swinging the bat well has also cut into Happ’s playing time and present the front office with an uncomfortable, but needed, decision.
Is Happ better served playing everyday in Iowa working through his issues or starting two or three times a week in Chicago?
Letting a young player work through their issues, whether mechanical, mental, or something else, is always preferable, and while that course of action works in some circumstances, it doesn’t apply in all cases. A team like the Chicago White Sox, who are in the middle of a rebuild, have nothing to lose by letting Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, or Lucas Giolito work through there issues in the big leagues. The Cubs, who are World Series title contender, don’t have that luxury. There’s less room for error, especially with the inconsistencies the team’s offense has had through the first month and a half.
Similar to Schwarber last season, the Cubs’ front office and Maddon have been careful when discussing Happ’s struggles, and the idea of sending their young outfielder to Iowa right now has been rebuffed.
“It’s too early to have that discussion, I think,” Hoyer said in an interview on WSCR-AM 670. “I think with Kyle (Schwarber being demoted in 2017), we were talking about north of 200 plate appearances at that point. I think with Ian, we’re still in early May. We’re still at 75, 80 plate appearances on the year.”
Yes, Happ has only had just more than 100 plate appearances, and while it would still be classified as a relatively small sample size, the difference between the current situation and Schwarber’s last year is that Happ has lost his starting spot and has not been playing on a regular basis. Working with Chili Davis and hitting in the cage is cool, but it is asking a lot for him to see progress only getting 10 at-bats a week. At this pace, it could take a while longer before he gets to those 200 plate appearances Hoyer is looking for.
The Cubs hold Happ in high regard, and there’s likely some hesitation to send one of their young talents down. But with some things to fix and no clear room for playing time, going to Iowa, playing every day and building confidence back up will benefit both Happ and the Cubs going forward. And two weeks or a month later, he could come back up and really help the Cubs down the stretch.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports