One week from today, the Chicago Cubs are due to exchange arbitration salary figures with Ian Happ for his final year of team control (2023), and the sides figure to discuss that contract in the week ahead. Whether or not that evolves into broader extension negotiations remains to be seen. But it’s certainly a possibility based on various comments from Cubs President Jed Hoyer back in October, as well as Happ’s stated desire to remain a Cub.
I remain convicted in my belief that the Cubs *should* want to extend Happ, who was a first-time Gold Glove winner and All-Star this past season, particularly after seeing the improvements he’s made to his overall production and consistency dating back to the 2021 Trade Deadline: .275/.347/.476 (127 wRC+).
In that relatively significant stretch of work (864 PAs), Happ lowered his strikeout rate, improved the quality of his contact, and even succeeded as a right-handed hitter, re-establishing his value as a true switch-hitting weapon. With excellent defense in left field, that’s a seriously valuable player. And he’s still only 28! You can understand why I want the Cubs to keep him around.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before that deadline a season-and-a-half ago, Happ had moments of brilliance, but there was certainly lot of streakiness to his game. A lot of strikeouts, too. And as I had alluded, our confidence in his ability as a switch-hitter had started to wane pretty significantly.
So why the sudden improvement and greater overall consistency? And, maybe more importantly, is it sustainable? Well, there’s actually a lot to that, and I talked to Ian Happ about it to get a fuller picture.
On the surface, Happ began with everything you might expect to hear: The opportunity to (1) play everyday, (2) at one position, (3) without having to look over his shoulder, and so on. Not only did those three factors help get him into a rhythm at the plate, he also got a little confidence boost, knowing that one bad game at the plate wouldn’t lead to a seat on the bench the next day. He also credited the improvement to his general progression as a player, citing his improved ability to read Wrigley Field on certain days and adjust his approach accordingly.
“Especially April and May,” he said. “You learn (the nuances of Wrigley Field) as you’re there for a while. If the wind is howling in, you’re aiming low, or trying to shoot something the other way. You know where the hits are and where they’re not.”
Understanding the nuances of Wrigley Field (or any park) is one thing, but having the wisdom and *ability* to actually tweak your approach to optimize your performance is a whole other category of development. It was heartening to hear Happ talk about that.
Happ also believes (and the data supports it), it’s difficult to be a left-handed hitter at Wrigley Field, and that he has started to figure out how to succeed in that capacity. So I decided to take a look. And guess what? Ian Happ’s .304 batting average as a left-handed hitter at Wrigley Field last season was fifth highest among all hitters in MLB. And he had more plate appearances in that category than all four players ahead of him combined.
More holistically, Happ had a 142 wRC+ as a left-handed hitter at Wrigley Field last season (245 PAs). That’s no-doubt All-Star level production and pretty strong statistical support to that specific assertion.
In terms of his success as a right-handed hitter (123 wRC+ in 2022), Happ credits a two-pronged approach: (1) Mechanically, he went back to the way he swung in 2017, “more upright, more of a leg kick. Little bit more closed.” And (2) Philosophically, he stopped just trying to put the ball in play. He actually tried to do damage, to be a full-value righty, not just a functional switch-hitter. And I have to tell you, while I don’t discredit the philosophical change in approach, I was so happy to learn about the mechanical changes. Right or wrong, that makes me more confident in the staying power of his right-handed improvements.
But this is all leading up to the grand finale.
Because while the improved performance as a switch-hitter, the overall consistency at the plate, and the Gold Glove defense were all excellent aspects of Ian Happ’s 2022 season, I think the biggest thing we talk about is the declining strikeout rate.
From the start of his career in 2017 through the 2021 season, Ian Happ struck out 30.8% of the time, 10th worst in MLB among qualified hitters over that stretch, and nearly 10 percentage points higher than the league average.
In 2022, by contrast, Happ struck out just 23.2% of the time, which is a HUGE improvement over his career and less than one percentage point above the league average. And he did that while maintaining his overall exit velocity and hardhit%. In other words, he wasn’t just selling out for (weak) contact.
So how did he accomplish that? While statistically, it’s pretty easy to see: Happ swung at more pitches in the zone than ever before and made more contact on pitches in the zone than ever before. But in the real world? It might actually be due to his vision training.
Yes, vision training.
Following the 2021 season, Happ reached out to some former teammates, Tommy La Stella and Matt Duffy, who had been working with a vision specialist out in California. Happ went to visit this specialist 4-5 times over the offseason to get his vision examined and a plan in place to improve it.
Which, Dude. What? Happ explained this so casually, but it strikes me as pretty big news! And a really smart thing to do.
In addition to actually working with the specialist, Happ maintains his work daily, with activities meant to strengthen and focus his eyes. Specifically, he juggles hacky sacks and uses focus cards to dial in his eyesight before every game. And as he steps up to the on-deck circle, he’ll take off his helmet and focus his eyesight on specialized stickers he has stuck inside his helmet (OHHHH! So that’s what he’s been doing).
And all of that, it seems, has amounted to a reduced strikeout rate. I don’t think Happ would go as far as crediting everything to that — he also was taken a serious interest in mental skills, and there’s everything we said above about him maturing into more of a veteran hitter — but still. This is obviously a factor, given the timing and extreme reduction in strikeouts.
Frankly, this is pretty incredible to me. And it gives me even more confidence in both the sustainability of the production he’s already achieved, but also Happ’s willingness to put in the work to keep improving as a player. And that, in turn, makes me even more sure of what the Cubs need to do next: Extend Ian Happ. Keep him around. He’s talented, he’s young, he’s versatile, he’s demonstrated a willingness and ability to improve, and it’s finally all coming together on both sides of the ball. It’s a no brainer.