Ian Happ’s Demotion Shows Drama of 2019 Season Just Beginning

As the Cubs start their 2019 campaign on Thursday, I’m reminded that part of the attraction to sports is the drama. The physical challenges. The uncertainty of outcome. The complementary or clashing personalities. The mental struggles against unchanging physics and ever-adapting opponents.

To certain degrees, all four were on display Saturday when the Cubs demoted Ian Happ. The merits for the demotion are inarguable, yet the move shocked everyone because of this front office’s Pygmalion faith in their rapid promotion program for every first-round college bat they draft.

I say the demotion merits are inarguable because anyone who went on a Kool-Aid cleanse last year recognized Happ’s shortcomings. He’s supposedly the fastest player on the team, but isn’t a big stolen-base threat. He’s a versatile, athletic defender who doesn’t offer a plus glove at any position. Thus it all came down to whether that bat will hit, and it didn’t connect enough.

Sheer optimism marked most of Happ’s 2018 campaign. If not for his leadoff homer on Opening Day, it was a uniformly mediocre sophomore season. He started the first 10 games hitting .156 with a .459 OPS and a 51 percent K rate. For more than a month of games from May 19 to June 22, he hit .162 with a .661 OPS and a 35 percent K rate. Then he finished the final two months hitting .189 with a .631 OPS and a 38 percent K rate

And even when he was hot, it’s not as though he was en fuego. Ten of his 15 homers came with the bases empty. And by OPS, his best month last year came in May, when he posted a .981 OPS. But this came against a .226 batting average. If not for his five homers and a 21 percent walk rate that month, he and his all-or-nothing uppercut had no legitimate argument for staying lineup of a contending team.

Given the huge holes in Happ’s strike zone, one wonders why so many pitchers nibbled at the edges against him. But as last season progressed, fewer pitchers did so and his walk rate glided down from 21 percent to 9.5 in August, before a small uptick in September.

And against power pitchers, the Cubs’ collective Achilles heel, he was a fair disaster. Last year he hit just .200 with a 52 percent K rate, which actually represented a small improvement over a rookie season in which he hit .183 against such pitchers.

But apparently rebounding from his .172 August with a .214 in September was enough to give Cubs brass hope for the future and not seriously consider packaging him in a winter deal or sign Andrew McCutcheon for outfield over picking up Cole Hamels’ ledger-closing $20 million option.

Some have interpreted Happ’s demotion as a sign that the front office is serious about prioritizing production over talent. But I say trading and demoting the two position players at the end of your bench – Tommy La Stella being the other – doesn’t really send a major message to your core.

Corey Freedman and Brendan Miller had a great discussion at the start of their most recent Cubs Related podcast about what this latest move means in terms of the front office’s powers of evaluation and planning. It’s well worth a listen.

After all, the Cubs now essentially have three outfielders. That’s Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. – plus Ben Zobrist at times and Mark Zagunis until Addison Russell comes off suspension. Clearly, members of the Cubs brass were planning on Happ being something this year that he has yet to be.

Yes, his 24 homers and high walk rate as a rookie tantalized, but in two years, he has posted a monthly batting average over .270 just once (.271 in June 2017). This is a player who needs a lot more seasoning. Like Schwarber before him, Happ was rushed through the minor league system based more on the organization’s faith in its predictive talents than superior results.

In fact, before starting the season at Iowa, he had never had a batting over .300 or an OPS over .900, the simplest measurements of mastery of a minor league level. And yet the Cubs marched him up through four successive levels. To Happ’s credit, his numbers in 2017 at Iowa and in Chicago were better than anything anyone could have expected.

Of course, Happ’s demotion doesn’t mean an end to either his Cubs or baseball careers. Everyone seems to believe in the talent and one hopes he is able to make the necessary adjustments to come back better than before on several different levels.

But Saturday’s news was certainly dramatic and the way it peeled back the bandage on this quizzical offseason wasn’t necessarily pleasant. So let the real games begin.

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31 Comments

  1. Good discussion and love the move by Theo. Happ was drafted as an elite college bat, one of best that year. It hasn’t translated on the big stage. He’s not an elite defender, so if he’s not hitting he’s not that valuable. He needs to destroy AAA pitching (for more than a few weeks) and earn the promotion. Maybe he doesn’t pan out. Lots of first rounders don’t.

  2. At the end of this season and the end of his career this clown(writter ) will be eating his words,. Happ has talent that can’t be taught and you don’t trade away someone who has hall of fame type talent , but hasn’t discovered how to tap it yet. Happ has great power , a great eye , and speed. None of that can be taught. He has only one failing in his offesive game , it’s not power , and it’s not taking walks. It’s just stiriking out. You get rid of the strikouts anf happs a perennial all-star . And yeah it did send a message and shockwaves that happ was demoted. His demotion to Iowa and tge release tge same day of that reliver who all spring hadn’t given up even one run sent a message to the players that your job is not safe or gurrenteed. Produce or else and even if you do produce we still might can you. Those two releases one following the other on successive days was not done by accident. The Cubs brass is not playing around this yr. No more celebrating and focusing om your damn engagements, and marriages. Get in here and do your job or else.

    1. Good observations. When Happ started the batting stance with the little movement in it was when his hitting suffered, I don’t know where that came from but he needs to lose it, could have been a Chili thing. As far defense he plays all 3 outfield positions, 2nd, and 3rd. I rate him good defensively and believe if he played 1 position, he is far better than Schwarber. He can only steal bases when told to, he does not have a green light. If Burdick and TRG think he is that bad they should advocate trading him. They traded Torres and Jiminez and we all know how they flopped.

    2. Robert, I’ll thank you kindly to keep criticism at least somewhat constructive. And to perhaps pay better attention to the squiggly red lines when you’re typing.

      1. My critisim was constructive and spot on. You can’t deal with being proved wrong try another profession.

        1. My dude, you called our writter [sic] a clown, which is the furthest thing from constructive. It’s impossible to prove something wrong with a (very poorly articulated) opinion of your own,that was neither constructive nor spot-on. And this isn’t a profession for anyone here at CI [insert retort about why it’s not].

          1. Again, the opinion I gave was based on logic, reason, and especially facts. That by definition is constructive.

          2. You legitimately believe that opinions can be definitively proven right or wrong here, and the very nature of your less-than-well-articulated points leaves them as flimsy as balsa wood.

          3. Trump’s “less then we’ll articulate” yet he’s president of the United States. So much for Grammer and spelling having anything to do with weather someone’s argument is correct or not. In fact you haven’t rebutted one point I’ve made. Not with logic, or reason, or especially not with any facts. No you hide behind Grammer and spelling because you couldn’t rebut any of the points ive made. No, ive made you look like the fools you are so you hide behind spelling and grammar.

        2. Ummm…still more red squiggly lines. C’mon man, lay off and chill out. You in no way proved anyone wrong, you just posited an opinion. Poorly written at that. But here’s hoping that you’re right and Happ comes back with a vengeance.

          1. I’m right because i do my own homework , unlike your writter. I base all my opinions on logic, reason, and especially facts (empirical data). As ice stated ro my other critics you’re reporters need to follow these players from thier early baseball playing lives. Like scouts do. That’s why I value what scouts and the brass say about thier players more then i ever will a sports writters. The Cubs brass see Happ turning out to be a much better player then your writer does i do as well, because like a scout I scout these players from very early in thier playing lives. By the way , do you even know that most data shows that you can’t judge how a player will ultimately turn out until after 4yrs in tge leauge, his 27th birthday or a combination of both. Happ has played 2 season and is 24. It’s way to early to say what he will devolpe into as a player.

          2. I’m right because i do my own homework , unlike your writter. I base all my opinions on logic, reason, and especially facts (empirical data). As ice stated ro my other critics you’re reporters need to follow these players from thier early baseball playing lives. Like scouts do. That’s why I value what scouts and the brass say about thier players more then i ever will a sports writters. The Cubs brass see Happ turning out to be a much better player then your writer does i do as well, because like a scout I scout these players from very early in thier playing lives. By the way , do you even know that most data shows that you can’t judge how a player will ultimately turn out until after 4yrs in tge leauge, his 27th birthday or a combination of both. Happ has played 2 season and is 24. It’s way to early to say what he will devolpe into as a player.

          3. Buddy, look again at what you’ve just written and ask yourself why anyone would take that seriously. You have displayed a decided lack of comprehension regarding the content of Jeff’s piece and your flagrant abuse of the English language is borderline criminal.

          4. I destroyed his piece with logic , reason, and especially with facts. You and your fellow writers arguments are all based on how you feel about whatever your writting about. Since none of what you argue is based on logic , reason , or facts your not even worth debating. I only debate with those who don’t go by thier feelings or emotions. Sorry. Hahaahahhaahhaahahahahaha

        3. My dude, you called our writter [sic] a clown, which is the furthest thing from constructive. It’s impossible to prove something wrong with a (very poorly articulated) opinion of your own,that was neither constructive nor spot-on. And this isn’t a profession for anyone here at CI [insert retort about why it’s not].

  3. Exactly 14 qualified batters had batting averages over .300 last season and 9 had an OPS over .900 last season. If you’re using that as your mark of offensive quality, your standards are too high. Using any context-adjusted metric (WAR, wOBA, wRC+), Happ has been much better than Almora who is certainly going to be exposed now that he’s required to play full time. Sending Schwarber down was a red-ass move to allow Joe to save face from the mistake of putting him in the leadoff spot and sending Happ down is not going magically make him Mike Trout unless it makes him stop missing his pitch.

    1. But hey, if he gets 12% at hitting an arbitrarily defined pitcher type that Jeff has never demonstrated has anything to do with success, Jeff will use this tiny sample to say that Maddon should play him at third over Bryant regardless of what actual offensive stats show!

      1. That’d be an even bigger waste of time because of how different the offensive environment of each level is. (BTW Happ averaged a 135 wRC+ across the minors which strongly suggests he wasn’t overpromoted at all.)

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