Despite the way things ended, the 2020 season was loaded with fantastic individual performances for the Chicago Cubs – from Yu Darvish battling for a Cy Young, to Alec Mills tossing a no-hitter, to Willson Contreras finally framing pitches, to Jason Heyward nearly leading the Cubs offensive attack.
But today, I want to talk about Ian Happ.
The Cubs center fielder began the season batting ninth with modest expectations, but ended the year as the leadoff hitter and best overall offensive performer on the team (131 wRC+). However, we know that path didn’t simply start low and end high. Happ exploded out of the gate – and even led all of MLB in wRC+ at one point deep in the season – before hitting a huge wall in September, not long after taking a foul ball off his eye, the effects of which are difficult to discern, but (unfortunately) line up very well with his deep and immediate drop in production.
So today, I want to address four key questions as we head into the offseason.
1) What were the results before and after the wall (and when was that wall)?
2) What did his peripherals look like before and after the wall?
3) Why did that happen?
4) What can he do to fix the issue before next season?
1. The Results
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, right?
There are a few different games we can identify as “the wall,” but I think September 7th is perfect. That’s 1) the end of the Cardinals series, 2) the day before Happ went 0-4 with 3Ks against the Reds, and 3) the last day he led the league in wRC+. It also happens to be just 4 days after Happ took that foul ball off his eye. If you recall, Happ missed the Cubs game on September 4th, then hit 2 homers on September 5th and a double on the 7th. It was unfair for us to assume that everything was fine and dandy because of a few days of good results, and as it turns out, it wasn’t. Happ had that one last flash of offensive production and then everything changed.
• Before the Wall (163 PAs): Happ was slashing .304/.420/.659 (182 wRC+), with a 16% walk rate and a 23.9% strikeout rate. In basically every way you can measure results, Happ was dominating.
• After the Wall (68 PAs): Happ slashed .159/.221/.175 (11 wRC+), with a 5.9% walk rate and a 35.3% strikeout rate. In basically every way you can measure results, Happ was horrendous.
2. The Peripherals
So what changed before and after the wall behind the scenes? Where do I start?
Contact Quality: In just about every way you can imagine, the quality of Happ’s contact was destroyed after the wall. His average exit velocity dropped from 91.7 MPH (22nd in MLB) to 89.6 MPH (70th). His line drive rate went from 25.0% (36th) to 15.4% (146th). His ground ball rate also jumped from 40.6% to 56.4% and his infield fly ball rate jumped from 6.1% to 9.1%, and on and on.
You don’t need to see the rankings for each of these statistics, the jumps are all the same: Happ went from making some of the best, most productive contact in the league to some of the worst.
Which should help explain this insanity:
Plate Discipline: But it’s not just about the contact he did make, it’s about the contact he didn’t make. Happ was sent to the minors in 2019, in part, to work on his strikeout rate and whiff rate. That rates improved at the end of last season and seemed well under control (especially considering the production) for most of 2020. But after the wall, Happ’s strikeout rate was unacceptably high and largely debilitating. By that I mean, even if he were still making quality contact, which he wasn’t, he wasn’t making enough of it to do any real damage.
So what was it? A hole in his swing? A bad eye? Ultimately, a little bit of everything, and it was just as extreme as ever.
Before the wall, Happ was swinging at just 24.4% of pitches out of the zone (31st in MLB). After the wall, that jumped to 34.3% (113th in MLB). That’s a FORTY percent increase in swings on pitches out of the zone. But it didn’t end there. Happ was also making less contact on all pitches, but especially pitches in the zone, where he went from an 81.9% contact rate (already just 109th in MLB) to 78.5% (146th).
So for the peripherals, it’s all pretty simple: when a batter swings at more pitches out of the zone and makes less contact on pitches in the zone, he’s going to find himself with an elevated first pitch strike rate and whiff rate. Naturally, that’ll lead to more strikeouts and fewer walks, but it’ll also put him in fewer hitter’s counts, which can sap a batter’s ability to hit for power and average.
Let’s go one step further.
2. Why Were the Peripherals So Bad?
Now, we know that his results were destroyed after the wall and which peripherals can explain the drop, but we still need to know why that happened. One of the first things I wanted to check was his proportion of plate appearances against lefties. I thought, hey, maybe he just got unlucky and was turned around to his weaker side more often than before. But that’s actually not true.
Happ vs. LHP:
Before the wall: 28.2%
After the wall: 19.1%
Happ actually had far fewer chances batting as a righty against lefties, which probably should’ve helped him if anything. My second thought was pitch mix. And once again, a picture can do some of the heavy lifting:
At around the exact time he began struggling, Happ saw a notable drop in fastballs and a SIGNIFICANT increase in curveballs and changeups.
And whaddaya know, for the season, Happ’s production against curveballs (-1.3 pitch value) and changeups (0.1) was by far his worst, especially compared to fastballs (2.1) and sliders (4.3). Generally speaking, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs opponents started zeroing in (more than usual) on how best to attack Happ, because he was one of the only legitimate offensive threats on the Cubs. That’s a tough position to be in for a young hitter who just started getting his first taste of playing everyday … while also leading off for a contender during a pandemic.
And then, of course, there’s the baseball he took to the eye/face. I don’t know if we can say for certain the impact this had on his season (either psychologically or physically), but he wouldn’t be the first guy to sustain an injury, fool everyone with a good game, but really still have significant issues to overcome (remember when Kris Bryant homered immediately after hurting his wrist? And how that convinced even himself that he was fine?).
We can’t really know the impact of the scratched cornea. I just think it deserves mentioning. With any luck, an offseason of healing can remove this factor from the conversation.
4. What’s Next?
So what does Happ need to do to improve before next season? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that, among other things, focusing on the offspeed and breaking stuff can go a long way. And frankly, I don’t think he should have much trouble accomplishing that – Happ hit changeups and curveballs just fine in 2019. In any case, that’ll be the thing to watch early on. If he makes those adjustments, the league will have to go back to the drawing board and find another way to get him out.
In the meantime, I’m not going to sweat the last three weeks of September too much. Let’s remember that we’re talking about 68 plate appearances. That’s barely anything.
Happ was excellent in every way you could ask for in the first ~70% of the season, so there could have simply been some small sample size noise making the legitimate struggles seem far worse during that last ~30%. And while I don’t really expect him to settling into that elite 180 wRC+ for an entire regular season, I think his ceiling remains above the 130-ish range where he wound up. Happ has a great eye, plenty of pop, and decent speed. Now that he’s shown he can hit for a higher average over a prolonged period of time, we know it’s possible.
Even if Happ ends up where he was by the end of this season (~130 wRC+), the Cubs may have their fast, switch-hitting, base-getting leadoff hitter for (at least) the next three years.