Over the weekend, the Cubs’ most recent first-round pick, Ian Happ, made his Major League debut against the Cardinals. Naturally, he homered and took a walk in his first game, Saturday (#ThatsCub), before adding two more hits, including a double, on Sunday.
After two games and eight plate appearances, Happ’s hey-that’s-way-too-small-of-a-sample-but-who-cares-it’s-fun slash line is up to .429/.500/.1000 (#ThatsBabeRuth).
While Happ will eventually provide plenty of value with his infield/outfield defensive versatility, his bread will almost certainly be buttered at the plate. And as such, FanGraphs’ David Laurila caught up with Happ to discuss his approach to hitting, which provided a number of encouraging and revelatory insights.
One of the more interesting bits was the revelation that the switch-hitting Happ prefers/feels more comfortable hitting left-handed than right-handed. Considering how much more often he’ll be hitting from the left-side of the plate, that’s really good to know (I’ve often wondered how many borderline switch-hitters would be better off abandoning the left-side of the plate entirely, but refuse to for whatever reason). That Happ is more comfortable on the left-side, then, is good to hear.
But the more meaty bit of news is Happ’s apparent dedication to the fly ball revolution. And that’s what we’ll focus on today.
If you’re unaware, there’s a bit of an on-going revolution to the philosophy of hitting, which prescribes more fly balls than ever before. The general idea, as it were, is that balls in the air are where extra-bases live, and that’s the key to becoming a better overall/more valuable hitter. The potential loss, of course, is a small bit of extra BABIP (and thus, batting average) gained by hitting the ball on the ground if you’re the type of player who could take advantage of groundballs. But there’s no slugging to be found there.
Happ, for what it’s worth, is all-in on the new-age approach: “I’m trying to hit balls in the air to center field,” Happ explained to Laurila. “If you get the ball in the air, you give yourself a chance to find some green and get on base. Ground balls are out. The instruction guys talk about trying to elevate, in order to produce. Your slugging percentage is in the air. You don’t slug on the ground.”
Happ is not all talk. Check out his ground-out to air out ratio in his three seasons as a professional (all Minor League stats via MiLB.com):
2015: 1.17 GO/AO
2016: 1.15 GO/AO
2017: 0.96 GO/AO
Obviously, using just GO/AO is a fairly crude way of analyzing his approach at the plate, but even still, there’s a pretty obvious trend to see here. In fact, when you break things down another layer, you can really see how much he’s buying into (and has been successful at implementing) the approach:
Eugene (Short-Season): 1.43 GO/AO
South Bend (Full-Season): 1.03 GO/AO
Myrtle Beach (High-A): 1.18 GO/AO
Tennessee (Double-A): 1.13 GO/AO
Iowa (Triple-A): 0.96
Every time he was promoted (four times in about two years) Happ improved upon his ground out/air out ratio, culminating in his lowest mark at Triple-A here in 2017. In addition, his raw fly ball rate increased upon his promotion to Double-A (+2.5% points) and again upon reaching Triple-A (+2.9% points).
Perhaps not coincidentally, Happ also slugged more (and produced better overall numbers) at Triple-A than any other stop in the Minors:
Eugene: .491 SLG (.898 OPS)
South Bend: .448 SLG (.763 OPS)
Myrtle Beach: .475 SLG (.885 OPS)
Tennessee: .415 SLG (.733 OPS)
Iowa: .615 SLG (.977 OPS)
If you were Happ and saw this sort of correlation, wouldn’t you be a believer, too?
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough Happ data at the Major League level just yet, but he is clearly onto something that could help him out quite a bit at the plate.
But here’s one final thought/point of encouragement: even if Happ weren’t onto something specific so obviously beneficial to his game, there’s something general to be excited about here.
The only thing more important for prospects than actually doing well at the various Minor League stops is constantly adjusting. Happ has, by all accounts, shown a strong ability to adjust his game for marginal, specific, and targeted improvements. Considering that other adjustments will 100% be necessary at the Major League level (ask Kyle Schwarber), it bodes well that Happ is not only willing, but seemingly quite capable, of making those changes. This is very good news.