Since, well, just after the first pitch of the regular season, Ian Happ has dealt with more than his fair share of struggles at the plate (.236/.286/.389), particularly in the strikeout department, where he’s K’d in almost every other plate appearance (45.5%).
Worse, given the lofty expectations he set for himself after a monster rookie season and even louder Spring Training, Cubs fans can easily (and somewhat fairly) draw a comparison to the beginning of Kyle Schwarber’s sophomore season, which contained a similar bout of power, strikeouts, and underperformance. (Given that he lost all of 2016 to a knee injury, the 2017 was really Schwarber’s sophomore stint in the big leagues.)
Naturally, then, Cubs fans have begun to wonder, should the Cubs pull the trigger on sending Ian Happ to AAA Iowa more quickly than they did with Schwarber? After all, consistent playing time and the ability to work on his mechanics/approach in an easier environment seemed to work for Schwarber … so why not Happ?
Well, it may yet come to that at some point, but according to Cubs Manager Joe Maddon, not yet:
Joe Maddon says #Cubs aren't looking at Ian Happ (35 strikeouts in 72 at-bats) and considering another Schwarber-style reset in the minors: "I'm not even talking about that with Theo or anybody yet. It's my job to really incorporate him."
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) May 2, 2018
Maddon on any thought of sending Happ to minors a la Schwarber in ‘17: “I’m not even talking about that with Theo or anyone.” Hopes to get him more ABs from both sides of plate
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) May 2, 2018
According to Maddon, the Cubs are not yet ready to send Happ to the minors, and I think that’s probably the right call for now.
On the one hand, I really don’t want to repeat the mistakes I personally made last year (i.e. holding out a bit too long to concede that sending Schwarber to the minors was the right call), but on the other hand, no two players are the same.
By that, I mean it’s entirely possible that the Cubs could send Happ to the Minors, he mashes, and, after a while, returns to similar issues in the Majors. Making sweeping adjustments to your swing and/or approach at the plate isn’t always as quick or easy as Schwarber made it seem last season.
Moreover, it’s entirely possible that Happ begins to figure things out, himself, at the big league level without the need to be demoted. After all, if you cut out just the first three games of the season, he’s been basically a league average bat (99 wRC+), and if you look at just his last 15 games (42 plate appearances), Happ has been about 28% *better* than the league average hitter: .300/.333/.500 (128 wRC+).
However, these are all very small samples, we made similar statements last year about Schwarber, and it’s not like everything is just peachy under the surface. For example, Happ may be striking out less often during that second stretch, but his K rate is still above 40%, and he’s actually swinging at more pitches out of the zone than he was at the beginning of the year.
Still, I’m just not sure it’s time yet. Not only has Happ’s overall production ticked up a bit, as we pointed out, there are also some positive signs. Namely, he’s making more contact on pitches in the zone, which could mean he’s working on closing up a hole in his swing.
It’s not a lot to hold onto, sure, but since he’s been producing throughout this stretch *and* the Cubs have Albert Almora to lean on in center, I wouldn’t mind giving Happ another month or so to show more signs of improvement.
And for what it’s worth, the Cubs waited until the end of June to send Schwarber down (the nice thing about waiting until then is it gives the player some time to work on adjustments and the rest during the All-Star break, before starting fresh in the second half), so maybe Happ could follow a similar timeline if worse comes to worse.
For now, though, it sounds like he’s not going anywhere, and the long-term expectations remains in place for Happ as a big league contributor.