I was enjoying a clip of Ian Happ’s homer last night – sending 97 mph out at the top of the zone is always fun – while also scrolling Twitter, and came across this impressive statistical note about just how good Happ has been over nearly the last month:
MLB wRC+ leaders since August 13: pic.twitter.com/saUa1GWWUV
— Brad (@ballskwok) September 8, 2021
Just huge results there over the last four weeks, including a whopping nine homers.
The extent of his success on the results side of the ledger can be debated (that’s pretty much always true when a guy is the “best hitter in baseball” over a month period, because no one sustains things like a .450 BABIP or .400 ISO over a full season). But the reality is that Happ is definitely hitting the ball very hard very frequently over this past month, and finally has resumed doing so in the air. He’s also done a lot of using that opposite field gap when batting lefty, which has always seemed like a sweet spot for him. I love what I’ve been seeing.
But the thing is, that confluence of seeing these stats while also enjoying that clip of the homer got me thinking about how it seems like he’s had quite a few homers recently that have gone out, just barely, to that left center gap at Wrigley Field. Yeah, he had that TITANIC blast in Minnesota, but I started to wonder: are some of his homers just good fortune to be at Wrigley Field, where the power alleys are the most hitter-friendly in all of baseball? Like, if you’re a gap-to-gap hitter, Wrigley Field is a dream park for you, especially in left center. Is that disproportionately benefiting Happ? In a way that might otherwise make you a little nervous about his results now being reflective, or not, of his future?
Well, it turns out there’s a way to check this kind of gut-level concern, and I’m sorry to say that the results were more stark than I expected.
Statcast has a metric that evaluates how many homers a batter SHOULD have based on the quality of contact in an average ballpark. That way you can get a little bit of a sense on how lucky or unlucky a guy might be getting on that marginal difference between a deep fly out or a homer. I mean, the difference in physical reality might be only a few feet – or worse, might only be the ballpark you happen to be in – but the difference in your slash line is enormous.
Here’s the top of the leaderboard on guys who’ve hit more homers than you would expect based on their actual contact, and … ope:
In other words, by this metric, in terms of evaluating how many homers Ian Happ should have hit this year, he’s been the luckiest slugger in baseball. If he hit all his balls the same way in an average park, by this metric, he’d have just 11 or 12 homers, rather than 20.
BUT THERE ARE CAVEATS!
Chief among them, notice anything else about the top ten? FOUR of them are Cubs (if you include Kris Bryant, who spent most of his season with the Cubs). Sure, that could be a coincidence, or it could be the product of the data gathering at Wrigley Field, and/or Wrigley Field, itself. Environmental factors like wind are not considered in the calculation, so you know immediately there would be some funkiness (though in a typical season, it cuts both ways). And since the power alleys are indeed friendly, gap-to-gap guys are going to get a boost at Wrigley Field … but is that a reason to count it AGAINST a guy? Maybe you’d have concerns about trading for him, but this is where he gets to play his home games. So being a gap-to-gap fly ball guy is a disproportionately GOOD thing at Wrigley Field!
Another caveat is that I’m still not so sure about how established this metric is. I understand what it’s going for, why it’s useful, and generally how it’s calculated, but I do wonder if it’s got things nailed down just yet. In other words, I don’t want to pop this one stat out there and act as if it is conclusively saying Ian Happ’s power is pure luck and he doesn’t deserve any of his results. It’s one metric, and it’s interesting. Don’t go too far with it.
A final caveat is that a lot of these balls Happ has hit wouldn’t have been caught, even if they weren’t dingers. Off the top of my head I can think of three just-barely-out homers at Wrigley where the outfielders were not otherwise in a position to catch them if the first row or the basket didn’t. A double is not a homer, but it’s still pretty good! And more importantly, it’s still reflective of what matters most about this stretch for Happ: he’s hitting a lot of balls very hard in the air. That’s what you want to see from him.
So, ultimately, what’s the takeaway here? Oh, sure, there’s probably been some luck there in Happ’s 20 homers, in terms of where he happened to be physically located when he hit that particular ball that particular shape and that particular distance. Maybe it makes you a little more cautious in projecting a full power rebound the rest of this year and on into 2022. It doesn’t, I don’t think, change the fundamental calculus on what you decide to do as a team (for me, it would be tendering a contract, and keeping him in the outfield mix for next year, without a hard-and-fast starting job locked down yet).