Here’s an absurd fact for your Thursday: Over the past week, the Chicago Cubs have had *the* best offensive production in MLB (151 wRC+), and it’s not particularly close.
As you expand that frame to include the last two weeks, they take an expected drop down to 8th best in MLB (105 wRC+), but still … there’s clearly been some improvement on that side of the ball since the dreadful start to the season for just about everyone. Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras have kept doing their thing, Anthony Rizzo has finally returned to being Anthony Rizzo, David Bote has returned to above-average by wRC+, Javy Báez is doing his unique thing, and even Eric Sogard has put the bat on the ball a few times.
But then there’s Ian Happ, a wonderful Cubs enigma.
The Cubs everyday leadoff man and starting center fielder hasn’t technically broken out with the bat just yet … buuuut that’s also not really true. For one, he’s been on base at least once in every single game he’s started this season, including three times last night. That’s due in large part to his 18.8% walk rate, which ranks in the top-3% of the league, bringing his on-base percentage up to .338 on the year (4% better than league average). The overall slash line is ugly – .167/.338/.222 (74 wRC+), but even the shallowest dive into the Statcast data reveals a player who’s been hitting the ball with authority.
Average Exit Velo:
Happ: 90.8 MPH
League Avg.: 89.0 MPH
League Avg.: 39.3%
League Avg.: 8.5
Happ is hitting the ball with average exit velocity nearly 2 full MPH higher than the league average, every other ball in play he has hit has qualified as “hard,” and he’s barreling it up 30% more than the league average hitter. I know a portion of you hate stuff like this, so I’m sorry, but that’s not nothing.
Based on those numbers, as well as his sprint speed, Statcast has Happ’s expected batting average for the season at .226 which is 59(!) points higher than his actual .167 batting average. And his expected slugging at .428, a whopping 206(!) points higher than his actual slugging percentage. Point being, his .167/.338/.222 slash line should probably look more like .226/.397/.428 (.360 xwOBA), which would put him somewhere between Luis Robert and Alex Verdugo in the 130-140 wRC+ range.
Happ came into this season with a .327 career batting average on balls in play. This year, despite the good quality of contact numbers, Happ’s BABIP is a paltry .235. It sure seems like the BABIP gods have hated him a little bit so far.
Now, that is not to say everything is peachy keen. Happ’s 18.8% walk rate is swell, but he can probably stand to be more aggressive. It’s wonderful that he’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone than he ever has, but he’s also swinging at fewer pitches IN the zone than ever. And that’s why his strikeout rate (27.5%) is also a little high – it’s actually not a terrible mark for him, but we can aim higher than that, yes?
Happ is also not making enough contact with pitches in the zone, despite seeing more fastballs (overall) than any year in his career besides 2019 – that’s just the plan of attack against all Cubs hitters at the moment. But here’s the other thing: last season, Happ handled fastballs just fine (.449 SLG, .352 wOBA, 31.7% whiff), but this season, he’s down across the board (.067 SLG, .220 wOBA, 51% whiff). Part of me hopes/wonders if that’ll even out with a large enough sample, but the other part of me worries that, like many of the Cubs hitters, a weakness has been exposed and now it’s being exploited.
I tend to bet against that given Happ’s history as a consistently well-above-average offensive player in every single one of his seasons, but it’s something to watch. Long-story short here: (1) Happ’s on-base percentage has salvaged the start to his season, but (2) his expected stats show that he’s been FAR better than his slash line reveals. Even still (3) there are things to work on, like contact rate in the zone, and (4) he can probably stand to be a bit more aggressive overall, (5) starting with attacking the extra dose of fastballs he’s seen. There will be a quiz on Tuesday.
Oh, and for his part, Happ seems to recognize all of this stuff. Via Marquee:
“You gotta stay really, really locked in with the process. xwOBA — all of the good stuff looks really good. All the metrics — fly ball rates, walk rates, hard-hit percentages, barrel percentage — all that stuff looks really good.
“So you gotta trust the process and trust the baseball gods. It’s a long season. They’re gonna be good to me at some point. Maybe sacrifice a few chickens here ….
“The hardest part is to not panic, to not change what you’re doing from a mental or physical standpoint,” he said. “It’s really easy when you’re not getting results to think that it’s something with your swing or with pitch selection and to try to do too much.
“I think it’s something I’ve done a good job of — continuing to be disciplined in the zone, getting on base. Just the fact that my on-base percentage is over .300 and getting on base for the guys behind me is kind of a testament to sticking with the process and not getting out of the plan.”
All the correct perspective from where I sit.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.