Ian Happ Isn't Going to Blame the Foul-Ball-to-the-Eye for His Performance Down the Stretch (But)

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Ian Happ Isn’t Going to Blame the Foul-Ball-to-the-Eye for His Performance Down the Stretch (But)

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs offseason roster decisions have – at times – been a significant source of frustration, but if there’s one thing for which I’m thankful heading into spring training 2021, it’s Ian Happ’s place on this roster. If he’s healthy when Opening Day rolls around, he’ll be the starting center fielder and leadoff man. And that’s exactly where he belongs.

Last season, Happ slashed .258/.361/.505 overall, with a team-leading 12 home runs. He also was the best overall offensive player (132 wRC+) and most valuable position player overall (1.9 WAR). But if you recall, those team-leading final numbers actually wound up a far cry from where he was earlier in the season.

37-games into a 60-game season, Happ’s 2.1 WAR ranked fourth in MLB, behind only Fernando Tatis Jr., Mookie Betts, and Mike Yastrzemski. And his .311/.421/.648 slash line was the fourth best overall offensive production in the league:

wRC+ Leaderboard (as of 9/3/2020)

1. Juan Soto: 209 wRC+
2. Nelson Cruz: 187 wRC+
3. Jesse Winker: 181 wRC+
4. Ian Happ: 180 wRC+
5. Trea Turner: 177 wRC+

All things considered, that made him a legitimate candidate for the 2020 NL MVP award …

… But then this happened:

That was September 3rd.

Happ left the game immediately and skipped the Cubs series opener against the Cardinals on September 4th to get his eye checked out professionally. But after getting the all-clear, Happ returned to the lineup on September 5th and hit not one, but two home runs against the Cardinals in the first-half a double-header, lulling as all into a false sense of security about how little the injury would ultimately affect him.

Happ went 0-4 with two strikeouts in the second half of that double-header, and from September 6th through the end of the regular season, slashed just .159/.247/.188, with a rough 32.5% strikeout rate, taking him well out of the MVP conversation.

Particularly troubling? Happ started swinging at way more pitches out of the zone than he had all season.

Could it have been a small sample, noisy fluke? Sure. Of course. You could say that about a lot of the good stretches, too, if you wanted to go that road. But given Happ’s huge improvements in approach in 2019, combined with what he was doing early on in 2020, it’s harder to dismiss a situation where the story matches the data so well. One simplistic thing: Happ was swinging at a LOT more balls out of the zone after the injury (32.3%) than he was before the injury (24.2%). Couldn’t you see that being eye related?

So what are we thinking for 2021? Was that a big issue for Happ, and will it be this season? Not according to him.

Sahadev Sharma (The Athletic) caught up with Happ to discuss a wide range of topics – all of which will be of interest to you, so check it out – but it was the conversation around his eye that caught my attention:

“It was a tough three-week stretch to end the year,” Happ said. “I think the eye was something that was a challenge. More than anything, a mental challenge. When something like that happens, especially something that is really paramount to your game, the doubt can creep in pretty easily if things start to go sideways. For me, getting past that was really important ….

“Because more than anything, this game is so mental. Any kind of doubt in your physical ability will show up really quickly whether you can feel it or not.”

Happ does not want to use the eye injury as an excuse for his performance – either as a physical or mental limitation – but it’s not particularly difficult to see that it impacted him (Sharma shares a telling graph featuring Happ’s O-Swing rate, wRC+, strikeout rate, and groundball rate). So now, we just have to hope that the physical limitations, if there ever were any, are entirely behind him, and the psychological awareness has completely worn off.

Because if Happ is even close to the guy he was showing last year before the eye injury? Look out.

Much more at The Athletic. Go check it out.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami