Ian Happ had a weird game last night.
On the one hand, he launched two homers – his fourth and fifth of the season – which brought his overall offensive production officially above average (103 wRC+), but on the other hand, he struck out two more times (a night after striking out three times).
We’ll get into all of that in a second, but before we get that far, let’s enjoy a couple of Happy-blasts in last night’s blowout win over the Marlins:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 8, 2018
According to Statcast, Happ’s first homer traveled 413 feet and left the bat at 103.3 MPH with a 26 degree launch angle, while his second traveled 378 feet and left the bat at 103.2 MPH with a 25 degree launch angle. And, as it turns out, that all adds up to not one, but two barrels in yesterday’s game (bringing his total up to six for the season), one from each side of the plate.
Even with the strikeouts, that’s just an impressive feat to pull off. Indeed, Happ is an impressive player with the sort of all-around game that’s relatively rarely seen.
And Joe Maddon knows it, telling Cubs.com after the game: “Happ’s got all kinds of tools. He’s dripping with ability. He’s one of the best throwing arms we have. If you had a contest from center field and put a gun out there, he might win it. Speed wise, he might clock as the fastest guy on the team. If you did a little home run derby before the game, he’d probably hit the ball farther than anyone else. His exit velocity might be as good as anybody else’s. He can play the infield and the outfield and he’s a switch-hitter and he’s very bright.”
Contact has obviously been his biggest issue, but there’s just so much there to like about Happ. He’s one of the most versatile combined offensive and defensive players the Cubs have had in a while, and if he can close that hole in his swing and/or start better identifying when to swing in the first place (we’ll decide which is the bigger problem in a minute), things might click in a hurry.
Here's a fun one: According to Statcast, Ian Happ hits the ball 237 feet on average, which is the second highest mark in all of baseball. Wow.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) May 8, 2018
But still, the problems exist.
Right now, Ian Happ’s slash line amounts to an above average 103 wRC+ (hey, 3% above average is still above average, so get away from me with your @’s), but certainly looks very odd: .238/.297/.452. Happ’s walking at an acceptable 7.7% rate (though he’s capable of much more than that), but, of course, his season-long strikeout rate is still the worst mark in baseball (45.1%) for players with at least 90 plate appearances.
So what exactly is driving that?
As far as I can, it looks like more of a hole in Happ’s swing, rather than pitch recognition problems. And if so, that’s probably good. Holes often can be fixed mechanically with swing changes, whereas pitch recognition is more of an innate skill that’s difficult to teach.
So, while Happ is swinging at pitches out of the zone slightly more often than the average hitter, his 34.6% O-swing rate ranks 50th highest in baseball – it’s not like he’s right at the bottom of the pile. Meanwhile, he actually swinging at more pitches in the zone this season than Joey Votto – they rank 39th and 40th, respectively.
In other words, he can probably just stand to swing less often in general, but he’s mostly OK in that respect, especially for a 23-year-old sophomore in the league. That part isn’t standing out to me when it comes to his strikeout issues.
Instead, the real problem is that Happ’s 63.3% zone contact rate ranks dead last in Major League Baseball, over 20 percentage points below the Major League average (85.1%). And the same goes for his overall contact rate. He’s just not connecting, and, because he’s swinging so often, he’s just not connecting a helluva lot.
But that’s also sorta the good news. Not only is removing a hole in your swing the easier strikeout problem to fix, Happ’s significant power is very much suited for this type of change. He can level out his swing and “shorten up” a bit more often, inherently sacrificing some power in exchange for contact, and still be the type of guy who’ll hit the ball far, hard, and over the fence 25+ times a year. And if he just swings less often in general – particularly at those extra out-of-zone pitches – his walk rate might just climb on up with him.
Happ doesn’t *need* to have the second furthest average batted ball distance in baseball. He *needs* to utilize his solid eye, speed, and natural power to become a well-rounded hitter. Because once he adds that extra contact to his game, he might just become really, really special.
Easier said than done, of course, but as Joe Maddon said, the guy is “dripping with ability.”