In his two seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Dexter Fowler slashed .261/.367/.427 (118 wRC+), and led off 265 different games, not including the postseason.
And while things were plenty good throughout his first year in Chicago, he really took off in 2016. That season, Fowler walked 14.5% of the time, saw 4.41 pitches per plate appearance, and got on-base at a .393 clip (all of which were top ten in MLB).
Last year, the Cubs had no more Dexter Fowler. And although the offense was productive overall, the absence of a consistent, table-setting presence at the top was noticeable.
Ian Happ has led off seven games in the Cactus League this Spring, and he’ll make it eight later today. While those 18 plate appearances have gone almost comically well (.444/.524/1.222; 4HRs, 2 2Bs), he knows he has a lot of work ahead of him if we wants to become the Cubs’ next permanent leadoff man.
And that might all start with channeling a little Dexter Fowler in his approach.
Happ told the Sun-Times that he has spoken with Fowler, and also looks to model some of his game after the Cubs’ former switch-hitting leadoff man.
According to Happ, Fowler’s goal was to get on base twice every game, no-matter how, and that really stuck out to Happ: “That’s why Dexter was so good. And I’ve heard him say that before, and I’ve heard people say that was always his thought: that he was just always trying to get on base twice a game, whether it was two walks, hit and a walk, couple hits, whatever. That’s why he was so good at it, because that was his thought process and he did it a lot of the time.”
That may not seem like much of an actual actionable approach change – try to get on base twice – but that’s kind of the point. Being a successful leadoff hitter is largely about being yourself, while mastering the mental side of being in that role.
To Happ’s credit, he does have a few things going for him as a leadoff man for the Cubs.
For one, he posted a 9.4% walk rate as a rookie. That’s solidly above average, and pretty impressive for a rookie caught up in the heat of a divisional race. Similarly, Happ saw 3.92 pitches/plate appearance last season, which ranked 103rd in all of baseball (eight spots behind Anthony Rizzo and two spots ahead of Ben Zobrist).
Moreover, because Happ displayed some pretty prodigious power in his rookie season (24 HRs in 413 PAs, .261 ISO, .514 SLG), pitchers are probably going to nibble a bit more often than they did last year, which means, with equal patience, Happ can see even more pitches and take even more walks than he did last year.
Of course, while seeing lots of pitches, taking lots of walks, and getting on base a lot are all great qualities for a leadoff hitter, it’s not everything. At least not to the Cubs.
When GM Jed Hoyer discussed what he looks for in a leadoff hitter earlier this spring, he said that comfort is the most important quality a player can have in that role. More specifically, Hoyer said that he wants to see guys who don’t change their approach just because they’re leading off (this was arguably part of the 2017 first-half Kyle Schwarber problem, if you recall). In fact, Hoyer even explained how Dexter Fowler was still the same Dexter Fowler even when he was moved from the leadoff spot to the middle of the order for the Cardinals last season, and how that is the mark of the right approach.
So how does Happ feel about that spot?
“I’m really comfortable,” Happ told the Sun-Times. “The biggest difference in the leadoff role is that you’re going to get more at-bats. You’re going to get five every day …. The guys that are the best at it are the ones that are really confident in themselves, believe in themselves and know they can do it.”
So can Happ do it? Well, I suppose the jury’s still out, but he sure seems like he has the right mentality (be like Dex), skill set (sees pitches, takes walks, gets on base, good baserunner), and attitude (“I’m really comfortable”) to pull it off.
And, hey, as for being the guy with the most plate appearances by the end of the season, the Cubs could do a lot worse than a switch-hitting 23-year-old, who posted the best wRC+ for anyone not named Bryant, Rizzo, or Contreras last season, right?
Of course, the big hurdle to Happ emerging as an everyday leadoff hitter is going to be finding a place for him to start every single day.