The Cubs made some pretty big news when they optioned one of their heralded players down to Triple-A Iowa, and no, I don’t mean Addison Russell. The big league team has been playing so well it’s easy to forget that Ian Happ is still toiling away in Des Moines, ostensibly to work on holes in his swing that produced too many strikeouts and inconsistent offensive performance.
While Happ’s overall 25.9% strikeout rate this season (not including Thursday’s results) is higher than in any of his previous minor league stops, there are very clear signs that he’s improving. After striking out in his first at-bat on April 26, the switch-hitting utility man has run up a streak of 27 consecutive plate appearances without going down on strikes.
The stretch in question also includes a homer and five walks, which leads one to believe Happ is showing some real growth. Except it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
Happ is batting .273 (6-for-22) and has five singles to go along with the homer, not bad. But of the 16 outs he’s made, 13 have come on the ground. Not including his two groundouts from Thursday’s contest, Happ’s 56.5% grounder rate with Iowa is nearly 10 points higher than he’s had at any stop of his pro career. His 17.7% line drive rate is also lower than he’s ever put up.
Things get really concerning, however, when we examine Happ’s splits. Four of his hits, including the homer, have come in eight plate appearances from the right side. As a lefty, then, he’s batting .143 (2-for-14 after a single in his last AB Thursday) with 10 outs on the ground.
His career MLB splits show him to be a much better run-producer from the left side, but that’s mainly a result of his eye and his power numbers. Batting averages, strikeout rates, and batted-ball profiles are incredibly similar, but Happ walks nearly twice as often and boast much higher slugging and ISO marks from the left side.
That’s been the case in the minors as well, save for his time at Triple-A in 2017, when he accumulated fewer than 30 plate appearances from the right side. This season, however, his .664 OPS from the left side (not including Thursday’s 1-for-3 with a walk) lags well behind his .827 from the right (not including Thursday’s 1-for-1). While it could be an aberration, this smacks of something more.
Switch-hitters have to put in a ton of work in order to maintain swings from both sides, so to see a drastic reversal in production like this is a little strange. Were I a betting man, I’d say Happ is making adjustments to his swing and approach to reduce strikeouts from the left side.
Perhaps he’s focusing on being quicker to the ball, a change that could be forcing him to chop down rather than achieve a more desirable attack angle. Natural righties may develop a longer swing from the left side as their non-dominant top hand drops too low and results in the barrel of the bat traveling along a longer loop. Happ may be overcorrecting by keeping the left hand too high.
I can really only theorize since Happ hasn’t been too keen on talking to the media in Des Moines. Alex Cohen, the I-Cubs’ play-by-play broadcaster, noted that Happ’s lefty stance appears to be upright and that there’s less movement with a quieter load. That could be part of an attempt to shorten his stroke.
Happ was obviously upset about the demotion and it’s possible those emotions have him pressing at the plate. It could also be what I just mentioned, that he’s dialing in his mechanics to craft a swing that produces solid offensive results without the high strikeout risk. Stuff like that doesn’t always come easy and it may take a while to discover true north.
He’ll have a chance to build on his strikeout-less streak Friday night as the I-Cubs head to Nebraska to take on the Omaha Storm Chasers Friday night.