In the last five to ten years, as the availability and granularity of information has proliferated exponentially, and the quality of pitching at the big league level has exploded, it has become a virtual certainty for all but the generational talents that a league-wide adjustment will come crazy quickly.
A young guy comes up, he hits really well for a while, opponents work overtime with the data and advanced scouting to develop a game plan, and the slump comes.
How soon it sets in, how deeply, and how long it lasts will vary by player and schedule, but it is the death and taxes of young positional player emergence.
Junior Lake hit .519/.536/.852 (17.2% K rate) in his first six big league games with the Cubs in 2013, and then he hit .254/.307/.373 (28.0% K rate) the rest of the season.
Jorge Soler hit .462/.500/1.000 (21.4% K rate) in his first seven big league games with the Cubs in 2014, and then he hit .222/.261/.397 (26.1% K rate) the rest of the season.
Kyle Schwarber hit .330/.420/.621 (26.1% K rate) in his first 31 big league games with the Cubs in 2015, and then he hit .178/.305/.380 (29.9% K rate) the rest of the season.
I could go on. It happens a lot.
In his first eight games with the Cubs, Ian Happ hit .357/.455/.786 and posted a 27.3% K rate. In the six games that have followed, he’s hit .095/.208/.095 with a 50.0% strikeout rate.
The samples are too small to be meaningful in terms of future projection, but because contact rates stabilize more quickly than other stats, and because we know that the league can adjust this quickly to young positional players, it’s the strikeout rate that jumps out at me.
Anecdotally, it seems like he’s swinging and missing a lot more lately, so I checked the plate discipline rates at FanGraphs. Sure enough, his swinging strike rate increased from an already-extremely-high 19.9% during the good stretch to 22.3% during this slump (10.3% is league average). Moreover, when the pitch is in the strike zone, he went from making contact 75.6% of the time to just 61.8% of the time (for context, the lowest zone contact rate in baseball right now – by a mile – is Keon Broxton, at 68.3%). By contrast, he’s taking more pitches in the zone, and he’s also making more contact with pitches out of the zone.
The short version of all of that would be something like “pitchers figured out how to attack him” (well, in addition to: it’s a tiny sample featuring a lot of good pitchers).
None of this is a critique of Happ, mind you. It’s just a recognition of what is happening in this moment, and an exploration of how Happ will need to adjust back.
So what exactly did the league do to get all those extra whiffs, especially in the strike zone? Well, although the game total is a small sample, we can actually check out more than 200 pitches so far for him. And it looks like pitchers started pitching him up, up, up.
Here are the first eight games, via FanGraphs’ heat maps:
Plenty of pitches in the middle of the zone, and even a focus on keeping the ball down. Contrast that with with Happ has seen in the last six games:
There’s a very clear shift there up in the zone – even above the zone – and away from staying low. Happ demonstrated an affection for those low pitches in the zone, and pitchers adjusted almost immediately.
Now take a look at Happ’s contact rates, first from his hot, not-too-strikeout-y stretch:
Down and out of the zone, sure, you’ll have that. Most players do. But that blue bar up at the top of the zone? That’s what pitchers saw in those first games, and then they exploited it:
AHHHHHHH! RUN AWAAAAAAYYYYY!!!!!!!
OK, so I’d say there’s an early book on Happ, and it’s very clear: pitch him up in the zone, and he’ll even extend beyond the top of the zone.
It’s not all that difficult to see why pitchers have gone this route. Happ has a beautiful swing, but boy does it have some loopiness to it:
If you’re Happian you know it, crank a dinger. pic.twitter.com/kE9tUkcJ7Q
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 13, 2017
So, now what? It’ll depend a little bit on how the Cubs believe Happ will best adjust to this new approach. Will it require mechanical swing changes? If so, that might mean a return to the minors could be in order. Will it instead require seeing more big league-caliber pitching? Then the best developmental thing might be to let him struggle in the big leagues some more. (If the Cubs can take it, that is.)
The good news is that Happ is aware of this approach by pitchers, telling Sahadev Sharma that he saw a lot of low, off-speed stuff at first, and now he’s seeing a lot of elevated fastballs (The Athletic).
We’ll see if Padres pitchers keep pounding the top of the zone against Happ, and whether he’s able to adjust this quickly, or if it’s going to take more time. Even after identifying an issue, it’s rare that a young player can adjust that quickly, so patience may be the order of the day.