When Albert Almora Jr. is patrolling center, the Cubs outfield becomes a viscerally exciting thing to watch. Almora and Jason Heyward have made the spectacular happen on such a regular basis that even Jon Lester has told the media that he’s going to stop applauding them for good plays—most likely because he was in danger of becoming the first player in MLB history to have his transaction wire read:
10 Day Disabled List
Jon Lester (excessive clapping)
And when Joe Maddon’s lineup combines Almora and Heyward with Kyle Schwarber’s missile launcher aimed at baserunners’ hopes and dreams, the outfield becomes a major defensive asset. If it’s not quite the historic greatness of the Cubs infield, it might be closer than we think.
But when Ian Happ plays center field, it feels like the entire dynamic changes. The Cubs still have the best defensive right fielder in the league and a left fielder who appears to be the result of a Dr. Moreau-esque experiment to fuse Andre Dawson’s arm onto Captain Caveman. But the biggest portion of the outfield is being covered by a player who doesn’t really belong there.
Which is not to say that Happ isn’t capable of pulling off a great athletic play. Just ask the Pirates who are undoubtedly planning on throwing at him in their next series for making a game winning diving catch and then disrespectfully allowing the left side of his face to curl one micrometer closer to a smile.
No wait, it’s the Pirates. That sentence should read “throwing at Willson Contreras.”
On the whole, though, when Happ is in center, something always feels a bit off. Because to put it as succinctly as possible: Ian Happ is not a center fielder. And it probably doesn’t help matters when you realize that the previously linked brilliant catches were made while he was playing left field.
So the question then becomes, when the Cubs’ outfield alignment includes Ian Happ, why doesn’t Joe Maddon swap Happ and Heyward’s positions so that his best defender can play center?
It’s obviously impossible to see inside Maddon’s mind. The motivation for any move he makes could run the gamut from “This’ll piss off #cubstwitter” to “Years ago Steve Cishek’s right arm talked shit about me and now I’ll finally have my revenge!” So all we can do as fans is look at how Heyward and Happ have performed at the position and make an educated guess.
And based on the defensive metrics, that hypothesis is that Maddon would rather challenge a prospect by making him learn a new position than turn an extraordinary player into one who’s merely above average.
We know the metrics have always expressed their fondness for Heyward in the field. And true to form, FRAA has traditionally loved him like Kanye loves Kanye. But when it comes to center field, FRAA is really happy for Heyward and is gonna let him finish but Jackie Bradley Jr. had one of the best gloves of all time…
Look at how Heyward’s FRAA breaks down over the past four years between center and right:
|Year||CF FRAA||RF FRAA|
I insist Heyward was a great fielder in 2016 and will throw down with anyone who says otherwise. Yes, I just challenged a stat to a fight. Which means I am officially John Smoltz.
Even with very small sample sizes for the center field numbers, the contrast is pretty stark. Heyward plays star level defense in the right field corner and is only a bit better than average in center.
Which, of course, still makes him look like Andruw Jones compared to Ian Happ’s breakdown:
|Year||CF FRAA||RF FRAA||LF FRAA|
Looking at his 0.726 FRAA in center from 2017, you can squint real hard and see how Happ’s performance there might be endurable—in fact, it’s not that far off from the 1.007 Heyward put up that season.
But every other number on that table indicates that it’s very much an aberration. And Happ’s center field FRAA from this year is so ugly that Fred Sanford would have joined SABR just so he could compare it to Aunt Esther’s face.
So based on what the numbers say, the explanation for this particular defensive alignment comes down to this: Joe Maddon doesn’t want to diminish the value of the very real weapon he’s got in right field. And I get that. It’s good managing to put your players in a position to get the maximum value from their skillsets.
However, if you look closely at the sheet music for “Centerfield,” you’ll see that John Fogerty has written “Dedicated to everybody EXCEPT Ian Happ.” Harsh but true.
The Cubs simply should not be throwing a player with such a negative fielding metric into the fourth-most important position on the defensive spectrum. Especially when a much more competent outfielder is standing just to his left.
Playing Happ so far out of position does not put the Cubs in the best position to win. But it is also unfair to a player who’s still very much in the development phase of his career. As we’ve witnessed from the streaky nature of his offensive game and his stratospheric strikeout rate, Happ is currently trying to figure out who he is in the major leagues.
And this should be emphasized: he still brings many positives to the table, especially considering his speed tool and the flashes of power he has shown. But as the Cubs have tried to bring him along, sticking him with the burden of trying to hold down an important position that he shouldn’t be playing can’t be helping his development. Under the circumstances, it’s admirable that Happ has kept his head above water as well as he has.
But as all the evidence points out, your eyes have not deceived you. If FRAA could talk, here’s what it would say:
“Ian Happ, I served with center fielders. I knew center fielders. Center fielders were friends of mine. Ian Happ, you’re no center fielder.”
It’s time Joe Maddon to admit this as well.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for his help with Heyward and Happ’s FRAA splits by position so that I could turn them into a Redd Foxx reference that means nothing to anyone under 55 years old.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports