Ian Happ hit two more homers this weekend, joining a Cubs outfield party that literally made history, while raising his season slash line to .294/.417/.624 (174 wRC+). Relative to the rest of the league, that makes Happ the 6th most valuable player in baseball. Not bad, eh?
Well now that we’ve introduced Happ’s general offensive dominance, I’m more comfortable nudging our way into one area of potential improvement – or, at least, significant interest: facing southpaws.
Happ has always been a switch-hitter for the Cubs, but the results over the years have heavily favored his production from the left side of the plate (against righties), as opposed to the right-side of the plate (against lefties).
Ian Happ vs. LHP: 91 wRC+ (300 PAs)
2017: 98 wRC+ (113 PAs)
2018: 69 wRC+ (117 PAs)
2019: 96 wRC+ (33 PAs)
2020: 131 wRC+ (37 PAs)
Ian Happ vs. RHP: 129 wRC+ (864 PAs)
2017: 119 wRC+ (300 PAs)
2018: 119 wRC+ (345 PAs)
2019: 135 wRC+ (123 PAs)
2020: 190 wRC+ (96 PAs)
Lucky for Happ (and the Cubs), there are far more righties out there than lefties, so these are the good kind of splits to own, but still a few things are true: 1) Happ is weaker against LHP, 2) Happ has already made some improvements against LHP, and 3) if he can build on that progress, his elevated overall offensive production this season could be sustainable in large part.
So let’s take a closer look at Ian Happ, the switch-hitter.
Happ is Weaker Against Left-Handed Pitching
Just to be clear on that front. Although that point is obvious from the overall offensive statistics above, I do want to point out both that the underlying numbers support it and the eye-test can tell us as much. For his career, Happ has struck out more often against lefties, has hit for a lower average, walked less, slugged less, and made more weak contact in general.
And, as far as our eyes go, we can see Happ looks a little less comfortable from the right side of the plate. We’ve also frequently seen opposing managers turn him around late in games as often as they can, knowing that there’s a benefit in doing so. Happ has had significantly fewer chances from that side in his career, which no doubt factors into those decisions and his comfort level.
Happ Has Made Progress Against Left-Handed Pitching
We’re talking about just 37 plate appearances so far in 2020, but the results are much better. Against lefties this season, Ian Happ is slashing .300/.417/.433 (131 wRC+) with a 16.2% walk rate. He’s also got an insanely high 44.4% line drive rate, no infield pop-ups, and an impressive 42.1 hard% in those at-bats. I cannot gloss over the 32.4% strikeout rate against lefties, which is as high as ever, but baby steps? I can believe it.
Something to keep in mind that informs a lot of what challenges a switch-hitter from the short side of the plate: it’s so difficult to succeed as a big league switch-hitter when you’re not getting equal opportunities against pitchers of both types. Happ puts in the work to get those looks in BP and against the machine, but that can get you only so far. Moreover, the challenge for Happ is compounded because he is often (understandably) protected from too many chances against left-handed pitchers. At the time, those decisions may have given the Cubs the best odds to win on any given day, but obviously in the long-term it can hinder a step forward if you’re not getting the reps.
However, as Albert Almora Jr. has struggled, as Kris Bryant and Steven Souza Jr. hit the injured list, and as Happ’s own production has exploded, he’s earned more starts than ever, more at-bats at the top of the lineup, and, thus more practice against left-handed pitching.
As Happ recently told me, the more opportunities he’s received from the right side of the plate, the better he’s been able to hone a dual approach (more on that in a second), and generally put himself in a position to make better decisions. And you know what? If we wanted, we could stop there. This is a former top-10 overall pick who’s finally gotten his real “shot,” and with the added, consistent opportunities, he’s improved. That’s not all that crazy. This is kinda what you’d hope would happen!
But it was Happ’s dual approach that really caught my attention, not only for it’s apparent effectiveness, but also the maturity and soundness of the logic.
A Switch-Hitter is Really Two Hitters
Ian Happ says he feels like two different hitters from either side of the plate, which squares with what we’ve seen with our eyes.
From the left side of the plate (his strong side), Happ can use the whole field, hit the ball out of the park from line to line, has better awareness of the strike zone, and a stronger sense of how to cover both corners of the plate up and down. In short, as a lefty, Happ is more confident in his ability to use the entire field and attack all types of pitches.
From the right side of the plate (his weaker side), however, Happ told me he’s aware that he doesn’t have as much “oppo pop.” He isn’t going to hit as many opposite field home runs. So with that in mind, Happ implied that he levels out his swing at the expense of launch angle presumably to make a little more, and a little better, contact.
When we take a look at the data, we can see that as a righty, Happ hits FAR fewer fly balls here in 2020 (37.7% vs. 16.7%) and MANY more line drive (19.7% vs. 44.4%). It’s not as pronounced throughout his career, but it is still very much true:
as RHH: 34.9 FB%, 23.7 LD%
as LHH: 39.8 FB%, 19.9 LD%
That is a good, self-aware approach he may be taking to the extreme (and to his advantage) this season. But that’s not all.
Happ also told me that as a right-handed hitter he simply *has* to be more disciplined against more types of pitches in different parts of the zone, because he’s not nearly as familiar with the way they look from that side of the plate. That could help explain why his walk rate *and* strikeout rate are still so elevated as a righty this year (artificial, but necessary patience). That isn’t a bad thing necessarily, and also why we might be even more encouraged about his future.
You’ve gotta figure that the more opportunities he gets against lefties, the more familiar he’ll be with those pitches (and those pitchers). Then, once he’s got a better sense of the zone, he can probably allow himself to be a little more aggressive without fear of dinging his production. As his aggression ticks up, perhaps he can add a little more loft to his swing and eventually add more power to that side of the plate.
And if and when that happens, watch out. Ian Happ is already one of the best hitters in baseball WITH a well-known weaker side. If he can tick that up even slightly – or sustain the success he’s having this year – he’s going to be a force for a long time.