When the Cubs made the relatively surprising move to option Ian Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the start of the season, many took it as a very public example of Theo Epstein’s “production over talent” edict. That sounds odd if we apply it in a binary sense or through too narrow a lens, since it had fans wanting to demote or DFA every player who struggled for a week. But in Happ’s case, there were some obvious flaws the Cubs wanted to see ironed out.
Specifically, the big holes in his swing that left the switch-hitter overly susceptible to the strikeout. Happ’s 31.2% strikeout rate as a rookie was acceptable due to his inexperience and athleticism. But it was concerning to see that number shoot to 36.1% in his second year, even if his walk rate improved markedly as well.
While Happ was getting on base at a good clip and his overall offensive production was still above average (106 wRC+), the Cubs saw a player who wasn’t really tapping into his potential. He was getting by on talent alone most of the time, some of which had to do with irregular playing time and being away from second base. Even though spring production is hardly a barometer for regular-season success, Happ showed little growth in Mesa.
That’s why he ended up in Iowa, where it appeared the Cubs were having him reconfigure his hitting mechanics to reduce the swing-and-miss aspect of his game. Changes like that don’t take hold overnight and it was evident in the early going that Happ was sacrificing power to get more contact. His groundball rate skyrocketed, especially from the left side, as he basically stopped hitting the ball in the air.
Over the week-plus, however, it looks as though Happ may be putting some things together. He didn’t homer in his first 10 games of the season and had only two dingers through his first 21 games. But he’s now hit four homers in his last 11 games and his other counting stats are looking quite a bit better as well.
Solo blast for Ian Happ in the third inning bumps the @IowaCubs lead up to 2-0. Homer #8 for Happ, which now ties him for the team-lead with Trent Giambrone.
Happ is now 8-for-18 (.444) over his last five games, 12-for-33 (.363) over his last 9 games.
— Alex Cohen (@voiceofcohen) May 31, 2019
If, that is, you consider a .324 average and .649 slugging percentage over 10 games to be good. Happ is still striking out a lot more than he’s walking, but you’ll live with a 25.5% mark there. And though his .207 average as a lefty isn’t going to raise any eyebrows, his .353 OBP is a clear sign that he’s seeing the ball well from that side.
What’s more, two of the four homers and one of the three doubles he’s hit over the last 10 games have come from the left side. Given how much lower his season-long splits are as a lefty, a power surge may be in the offing for Happ.
I’ve not included more specifics on all the numbers because 10 games really isn’t enough to offer definitive proof of anything. That said, it’s still well worth tracking to see whether Happ can keep it up. The Cubs have already sought out additional outfield depth in the form of Carlos Gonzalez, a lefty bat who might still have enough fumes in the tank to occupy a corner spot on occasion.
Happ isn’t a bench bat, though, so the Cubs are going to want to see him putting up consistent numbers from both sides before bringing him back. Which means more time in Iowa to continue ironing out the kinks. But keep checking the progress, since it does look like Happ has figured something out.