Ian Happ was not happy when the Cubs broke camp for the regular season without him. He had mashed from the time he got the call up in May of 2017 and he’d spent time at the heart of both the order and the team’s dugout hijinks ever since, so to find out he was being optioned to Triple-A Iowa didn’t sit well.
The Cubs knew that would be the case and perhaps even chose Happ as the sacrificial lamb of the “production over talent” edict because they knew he’d channel his anger in a productive manner. They sure haven’t set any other examples in that area, though, so maybe it was a matter of believing Happ had more room to grow than his peers.
Whatever the case, the switch-hitting utilityman hasn’t exactly had a smooth go of it in his return to the minors. It’s taken a while for the adjustments he’s working on to take hold, particularly from the left side, and Happ’s production has continued along the same roller-coaster path he rode with the big club.
A lot of that has been the result of mechanical changes that are hard enough for any hitter, let alone one who swings from both sides of the plate. Then you’ve got the approach changes, trying to be more aggressive early in counts. Top it off with the more nebulous emotional aspects, which range from anger to feelings of inadequacy, and you can see how we’re not talking about a quick fix.
Of all the habits Happ is working to establish, talking with the local media hasn’t been one of them. At least not early on. But The Athletic‘s Sahadev Sharma had established a rapport over the last couple seasons and was able to get Happ to open up ($) about what he’s been working on this season. I’m including some quotes here for the sake of context, but you really need to go read the whole thing.
“The acceptance and getting past the fact that you’re not there was definitely difficult,” Happ told Sharma. “I think being able to work with [minor-league hitting coordinator Chris] Valaika and have him with me for the first few weeks to work with helped. When the success wasn’t there left-handed, he helped me continue to figure out what the next steps were to work back to a place where I felt comfortable in the box.”
It’s easy to look at the dead-dog production the Cubs are getting from the bottom of the order, spots frequently occupied by one of their center fielders and two of their second basemen, and believe Happ is a better option. Except that Happ isn’t exactly tearing things up as he incorporates new mechanics and mentality.
Ian Happ goes down on strikes in the 1st. He's really, really struggling right now. Entered today's game hitting just .158 with 15 strikeouts in his last 10 games. #Cubs
— Tommy Birch (@TommyBirch) June 24, 2019
“Obviously a big thing was getting to a point where he’s still taking his best swings early in the count,” VP of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod told Sharma. “We want him to do damage and be who he is, get the ball in the air and hit it hard. A lot of it was when it gets to two strikes, let’s change up the approach a little bit. Compete a little more in those counts.”
That’s similar to the changes Kyle Schwarber needed to make after struggling once he got into two-strike counts. His numbers took a big jump once he got more aggressive early, but that’s easier said than done for hitters who’ve long been groomed to be patient. There’s also the matter of implementing a “B-swing” and being more judicious when you fall behind.
Though Happ wasn’t talking about it earlier in the season, that’s exactly what it appeared he was trying to do in Iowa. A skyrocketing groundball rate indicated an attempt to flatten his swing and be quicker to the ball, which Sharma confirmed is the case.
“It’s a retooling of his swing more than anything,” Valaika said. “You hear us talk about the ‘A’ swing and the ‘B’ swing. That ‘A’ swing is the one that’s going to create that loft, that’s the early-in-the-count swing, the one we’re looking to do damage on.
“But then the one where we take that trade-off, he might be on the ground more, that’s the ‘B’ swing, that two-strike approach where he needs to cover the top of the zone more or situational hitting moments where he has to put the ball in play to move a runner or get a guy in from third. It’s two different swings for two different moments.”
We now interrupt our regularly-scheduled program to bring you this reminder to go read Sharma’s full piece over at The Athletic. A subscription is required for full access, though they should grant you a sneak peek that will allow you to read limited articles. In the interest of full disclosure, we used to have a custom link that paid us a commission for new subscriptions, but we stopped using it over a year ago.
Despite finding plenty of fault with the way the Cubs have gone about constructing and maintaining the active roster to this point, it’s hard to be upset about how they’re handling Happ. His average MLB production over 875 plate appearances far outstrips what the Cubs are currently getting from Daniel Descalso, Albert Almora Jr., and Addison Russell, but Happ still has a long way to go before he can make an impact on a consistent basis.
That’s not easy to swallow when you see the starting pitchers outhitting their compatriots at the bottom of the order, which is surely as galling to the front office as it is the fans. They probably didn’t think it’d take Happ this long to come around, but they also understand that Iowa is the best place for him to work through all these things.
The only way to adequately implement swing and approach changes is by getting regular, live plate appearances. That can’t happen for Happ in Chicago at this point, though he remains convinced that he’ll eventually get the chance to put his skills to work on a bigger stage again.
“At the end of the day, [the goal is] to be a Major League Baseball player for a long time. That’s my hope, that the work I put in here and the things I’ve accomplished will lead to more continued big-league success…Whenever that opportunity becomes available, I’ll take full advantage.”
That’s good to hear, but what else is he going to say? While stringing together a few idioms and clichés can convey Happ’s confidence, his bat needs to do the talking in order for any of it to matter. And right now, that bat is speaking straight gibberish. If he can figure out a way to translate it all, though, there’s still an opportunity for Happ to resume his impact role in Chicago.