Baseball

We Know Your Nature – 2019 Cubs Player Reviews: Ian Happ

I don’t think there’s a player I’m more confounded by than Ian Happ. And that’s because one week I’ll feel like he’s not getting a real chance, and then the next week I’ll think he’s never going to be anything, and then the one after that I’ll be in the middle before starting the whole cycle over again. It’s dizzying. See if we can’t make sense of it today with some separation from the season.

2019 Stats

58 gams, 156 PA

.264/.333/.564

9.6 BB%  25.0 K% 

11 HR  25 RBI

127 wRC+  .368 wOBA  .898 OPS

2.9 Defensive Runs Saved  1.5 WAR

Tell Me A Story: And that’s the thing. Look at those numbers for a third of a season. They’re really good. Like, really good. Even the defense! And yet didn’t you spend at least a portion of Happ’s time in Chicago this year thinking, “It’s never going to happen for this guy. Yet another 1st round miss! SAD!”  Of course you did. We all did. And yet there it is in black and white. He didn’t miss. So just what the fuck is going on here?

With Happ you almost have to go week-to-week or even game-by-game this year to try and get a handle on it. He was called up in late July, got five straight starts though only got two hits in them. But he did walk a ton in those. He then wouldn’t get a start for another week (huh?), earning them after doing some really nice work off the bench (a theme that would continue for the rest of the season). He would get a start the next six games, and in those he pretty much mashed, going 8-for-21 with three homers and only a few strikeouts. Happ started the next three games, only getting one hit, and then only get a start in three of the next eight. It was at this point that Anthony Rizzo got hurt the first time, and Happ would essentially get three straight starts at first, including the sweep of the Mets where he homered of Syndergaard.

It’s in the next stretch where Happ went cold, which seems to have defined his season at least in Maddon’s mind and probably mine. Happ would go 11-for-51 over the next couple weeks, starting either every other game at first and then every third and then none at all. And then of course Happ lit up the Pirates and Cardinals in the last week to give his numbers something of a shine. The games didn’t matter to the Cubs, but they did matter to the Cardinals, and it was only two games, so what the fuck do we make of it? If anything I’m more confused than I was. No one said it would be easy.

What we can say is that Happ had a rough couple weeks in there, which happens to everyone, and had it come earlier in the season or the Cubs with a comfortable lead in the division (and watching the Cardinals in the playoffs it’s even more galling that the Cubs somehow boned this so hard), Joe Maddon probably would just have let Happ play out of it. But given the urgency and time, he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I’m not sure. Neither are you. We’re sinking deeper and deeper here.

What we can say is that Happ did cut down his strikeouts this year, from being well over a third of the time to a quarter. That’s still not great, but you can live with it. And frankly in just these 58 games, he put up the same WAR he did in all of 2018 and nearly the same amount as 2017 which the Cubs are basing so much emotion on in the first place.

And while the Cubs harf-harf-harf about more contact, here they have a player who did make more contact. Happ raised his contact% from 77% in ’17 and 70% in ’18 to 82% in his cameo this year. That’s just a tick below league average, which for the Cubs is a goddamn bonanza. Is that real or just a splurge in limited playing time? No one knows, and our picture remains muddied and our lives unclear and the answers farther away. Eat Arby’s.

On the downside, Happ saw a major drop in the amount of line-drives he hit this time around, to about 15%. And an increase in grounders, which isn’t good. His exit-velocity dipped a touch as well. But again, given the sample size, it’s hard to know if this is a trend or just a spike or something in between. All we have is fog.

The book on Happ was that you could simply blow fastballs up in the zone by him all day, and he would murder you on low pitches. The latter still stayed basically the same, as Happ slugged .709 against sinkers this year. The real improvement for Happ came on breaking pitches. Where in the previous two years, he had only managed a .181 average on sliders and .225 on curves, those numbers this year were .529 and .421. He wasn’t cheating to the fastball and getting left out to dry and out ahead by anything.

Were high fastballs still a problem? Yes, of course. But Happ did show improvement in getting to them as a left-handed hitter in the middle or inside. Still not great, but moving in the right direction.

Perhaps the real upset here is that Happ graded out really well with the glove at second and in center. We think of him as a butcher in center, and the very few times they planted him between Castellanos and Schwarber we were pretty much watching with a book on our head. But the numbers suggest he was pretty good out there, with very positive UZR and UZR-150 numbers. I’m just telling you what they say.

Picture is not so clear now, is it?

Contract: Team Control, Arb Eligible in 2021

Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: When the season ended, Happ was probably a poster boy for a lot (and maybe even some in the front office) that think he’s the type of hitter the Cubs need to get away from. But that’s just not the case, or it wasn’t in 2019. Now, does that mean he should automatically be back? Not exactly. Given that he’s under team control, his pure athleticism that can have him deployed all over the diamond, the power that we know is there, and the at least somewhat encouraging signs of his abbreviated season in the Bigs, he might have some trade value and could help the Cubs get an arm they need.

That said, with the Cubs priorities having to be pitching and really pitching alone given what’s out there and what we think their budget constraints might be, and given that Happ makes pretty much nothing, he’s also extremely valuable to the Cubs. Or could be. At worst, he could start the season flipping with David Bote at second to keep the seat warm for Nico Hoerner while also getting starts in center. Again, he might be really improving out there. There are basically no center fielders to be gotten in free agency, unless you want to roll the dice on Brett Gardner‘s career-year, and you probably shouldn’t. Whatever trades the Cubs are going to make pretty much have to be for pitching. And if Happ stubs his toe again and the team needs someone in center, they’re more likely to find it at the deadline than in free agency.

Happ only just turned 25, which means he’s just about to enter his prime or just has. Yeah, the pitfalls there and his career feels like it’s careening along a mountain road with no guardrails. It could end with a beautiful view…or it could have a date with some very jagged rocks at very high speeds.

To me, Happ does too much–or has the potential to do too much–to not take one more look in 2020. There may be more answers here than we first thought.

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