During Spring Training, Ian Happ was crushing everything he saw at the plate, and essentially earned himself the leadoff job before the regular season even started.
Also during Spring Training, Albert Almora struggled a whole lot. In fact, his .164/.193/.327 slash was worse than anyone who would make the roster, and because of that (and Happ’s success) there weren’t many tough decisions early on.
Since the start of the season, however, so much has changed for both guys. Ah, the siren call of Spring Training stats …
Happ has both struggled mightily and bounced back, and Almora has dazzled at times at the plate and (more so) in the field. Because both guys are among the youngest in the Cubs’ core, and extremely talented in their own ways, Joe Maddon never game up on them. Instead, he played to their strengths, hid their weaknesses, and used training-wheel approaches (like batting Almora against reverse split righties) to develop them slowly.
And lately … it sure seems like it’s paying off. This is going to generate one of those good-problem-to-have situations with respect to playing time, but for now, you’ll take it.
Let’s start with Ian Happ.
For the season, Ian Happ is somehow now slashing .254/.361/.509 (128 wRC+) with seven homers and a 13.5% walk rate. That overall production lands him about even with Willson Contreras (129 wRC+) and behind only Kyle Schwarber (135 wRC+) and Kris Bryant (172 wRC+) on the Cubs.
Of course, that’s not the entire story. Happ is also striking out at a 40.6% clip this year, which is obviously way too high. HOWEVER, even that has been improving lately. In the month of May, Happ’s strikeout rate has decreased to 35.6%, which, sure is still too high, but it’s getting closer to the sub-30% rate at which we suspect his overall excellent production can be sustained.
Over his past seven games, in fact, Happ’s strikeout rate is down to a better than average 20%. That’s a tiny sample, but, again, in terms of where things are heading, it’s something to keep an eye on.
But perhaps more importantly than that rate going down is the fact that his peripherals are strongly supporting the transformation. As Joe Maddon is fond of saying, Happ is organizing his strike zone:
What's been the driving force behind Ian Happ's resurgence at the plate? He's been disciplined and shown a keen eye lately. This chart shows his 15-game rolling Contact% and O-Swing%. He started off the year poorly, but you can see a dip a dew weeks ago.https://t.co/0GE7crw12t pic.twitter.com/jS6U2cz2dw
— Aaron Kennelly (@aaron_kennelly) May 21, 2018
Be it pitch-recognition (o-swing rate) or mechanical tweaks (contact rate), Happ is trending in the right direction at the plate, and it’s very encouraging. Indeed, over these past seven games, he’s swinging at just 11.1% of pitches out of the zone(!) compared to 27.4% of the out-of-zone pitches for the season and making contact with 81.8% of the pitches in the zone, compared to 67.5% for the season.
We already know Happ will take his walks and hit for extra bases, but if he can make a little more contact, rely on some of natural power, and strike out under 30% of the time, he’s going to be an incredibly valuable player (because that’s not to mention his speed, switch-hitting ability, or general versatility).
And he’s only one of the Cubs exciting young center fielders.
Albert Almora has no shortage of fans right now, and every single one of them is justified in their adoration. On top of his near daily highlight reel plays in center, he crushes left-handed pitching, runs the bases well, and shows a ton of promise against right-handers.
But before we get to that, let’s check out his season-long stats. Through 39 games here in 2018, Almora is slashing .311/.370/.434 (121 wRC+). Only Javy Baez (124 wRC+) separates him from Happ, and, of course, Almora comes with the added defensive skills.
One of my favorite Almora 2018 developments has been the increase in his walk rate.
You see, Almora has always had superb bat-to-ball skills, but early on in his professional, that worked against him (think Starlin Castro), as he reached out and made contact on pitches he should be taking. And as many Cubs fans know, that doesn’t just mean a low walk rate, it could also mean a low hard-contact rate (and, thus, fewer hits and fewer extra base hits).
This season, however, Almora’s walk rate has climbed to 8.8%, which is exactly league average. And it’s not like that’s all coming against southpaws, either (9.5% against lefties, 8.5% against righties). That is, like Happ organizing his strike zone, a notable, encouraging improvement.
And now the really fun stuff.
Everyone knows Almora can crush left-handed hitters, because he has since he started playing professional baseball. But so far this season, he’s hitting righties better than league average, too: .306/.366/.388 (110 wRC+).
To be perfectly clear, Albert Almora would probably be an extremely valuable player if his overall offensive contributions were around league average (that’s how good I believe his glove is). But not only is his overall production well over that rate, his production in his weaker split is 10% better than the league average hitter right now. That is HUGE.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, he’s currently tied as the second best overall player on the Cubs with 1.4 WAR (same as Kyle Schwarber and behind only Kris Bryant). Dude.
So, yes, right now the Cubs have two 23/24-year-old center fielders performing well, improving daily, closing their weaknesses, and fighting for playing time. One has speed, the ability to switch-hit, power, and more positional versatility, the other has some of the best center field defense we’ve seen in a long time, great contact skills, and an uncontrollable hatred of baseballs that leave the hands of lefties.
So … what do the Cubs do? I’ll tell you what, they don’t care about it. Not right now.
Through yesterday, Almora and Happ have each played exactly 99 games. The former has taken 136 plate appearances, the latter 133. I know people are dying for a consistent lineup – and I understand why – I’m just not sure I agree.
The Cubs are blessed with the ability to mix and match better than almost any team out there. They shouldn’t be throwing that away just to see the same lineup every day. If splitting their time maximizes the Cubs performance (even at the expense of each player individually), then it’s probably time to do that.
BUT OF COURSE, it’s not sacrificing anything from Happ or Almora. In fact, I’d argue that the near-artistic deployment of each player by Joe Maddon has led to their recent developments and overall production in the first place. Indeed, it’s possible that the Cubs manager is playing them *exactly* right, and I see no need to stop that anytime soon.
Maybe it’s not a good problem to have. Maybe it’s not a problem at all.