You knew this was coming.
Whether you’re here reading this story out of vindication, relative surprise, or just plain old reluctance, you knew I’d be here, writing about Happ’s hot start – and you knew it, because (1) Ian Happ actually has been killing it, and (2) because you know I’m petty and will take any opportunity – however small – to say I was right about something!
Speaking of which, let’s get one thing out of the way upfront: Yes, this is an extremely small sample. Happ has appeared in only 12 games (with even fewer starts) and has taken only 31 plate appearances so far this year. Although there are plenty of good signs both in the advanced stats *and* my own eye-ball test to encourage the well-founded optimism, there just hasn’t been enough to say with any degree of certainty that Happ has “figured things out.” We might be writing something very different a week from now if he slumps.
BUT that doesn’t mean we can’t look back at what he *has* already done and enjoy it. More than that, we – more or less – know what he was working on (making more contact, specifically in the zone) so we can and will take a peek at a few early returns, if only to satisfy our own curiosity. But first, let’s talk about this series against the A’s.
After hitting a MASSIVE 474 foot home run at Wrigley Field (plus a double) on Tuesday, Ian Happ finally got that long-awaited start at second base yesterday, and did not disappoint. Through four at-bats, Happ hit an opposite-field grand slam and added a single with two 103 MPH line-drive outs in between. His results this week – outs or otherwise – have been nuts:
- Lineout: 103.0 MPH
- Home Run: 103.3 MPH
- Lineout: 103.4 MPH
- Double: 108.8 MPH
- Single: 112.7 MPH
- Flyout: 89.1 MPH
- Home Run: 108.6 MPH
*Exit velocity was not available for Happ’s single up-the-middle yesterday, which appeared to be struck well, but was otherwise deflected off the pitcher’s glove.
Since being recalled from his 4-month pitstop in Iowa, Ian Happ is slashing a cool .320/.452/.600 in the big leagues with identical 19.4% walk and strikeout rates. That’s good for a 173 wRC+, which is what MVP-favorite Cody Bellinger is producing for the Dodgers over the course of the season. Do I expect Happ to do that all year? No. Of course not. In fact, that’s probably well-above his most optimistic ceiling. But that’s sort of the point: he’s been killing it. He’s been producing. He’s been very valuable in actual results so far.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 7, 2019
But I think I’m more excited for everything underneath those great results. Like the fact that he has six walks and six strikeouts here in the early going. Happ might be a recent call-up, but he’s had nearly 1,000 big league plate appearances now. So this isn’t the typical “rookie taking the league by surprise,” thing. The book is out there on him. He’d probably be striking out more if something hadn’t changed. And, who knows, maybe something has.
Before re-working this post, I had a lengthy section here about how and where Happ’s advanced plate discipline statistics have improved, but I don’t think I want to get into it too much just yet. The headline, for now: he’s making contact with 80.6% of pitches in the zone in the early going this year, compared to 70.2% last season and 74.1% for his career. That’s still below average compared to the rest of the league (85.0%), but it is obviously a huge improvement for him/a player with his power.
There’s more to the story than just that – for example, I think he’s actually trying to tackle some of these problems with a more aggressive overall approach (not unlike what we saw the Cubs do with Javy Baez, who had similar contact problems … on top of pitch recognition issues). But like I said, it’s just too early to tell.
For now, sit back and enjoy Happ’s bat while it lasts. And who knows … maybe he’ll keep drawing starts.*
*I couldn’t really fit this part in naturally, but as for starts … it’s going to be really tough to work Happ into the outfield, given the way Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Nicholas Castellanos are hitting right now. You just don’t want to bench them more than needed. So if Happ is going to get starts, they might have to come at second base, where the Cubs/Joe Maddon clearly have not been entirely comfortable with his defense in the past.
Broader point being: with apparently rough defense at 2B, Happ will have to continue producing at a disproportionately high level to stay in the starting lineup. Kind of like the opposite of Albert Almora Jr., who’s glove can make up for his other deficiencies.