David Ross Anoints ‘Real Deal’ Ian Happ Everyday CF, Raising Questions About Bench Depth

Ian Happ for everyday center fielder, who says no?

Happ’s demotion and subsequent prolonged stay at Triple-A Iowa last year had a few naysayers, and maybe even a Pollyanna or three, questioning whether he’d ever figure it out. Though the converted outfielder was admittedly upset about the assignment, he soon realized the only way out was to improve the holes in his swing and develop a better B-hack. In case you’re not hip to baseball parlance, that’s a shortened secondary swing for use in two-strike counts.

“It’s a retooling of his swing more than anything,” minor-league hitting coordinator Chris Valaika told Sahadev Sharma last year. “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.”

That retooling was evident in Happ’s batted-ball profile early in the season, to the extent that he basically stopped hitting the ball in the air at all. Absent any official reporting at the time, in part because Happ remained closed off to the Iowa media for quite a while, this intrepid blogger theorized at the time that the naturally right-handed Happ was intentionally overcorrecting his lefty swing to shorten it.

Ouch, now I’ve got to finish typing this with a sore right shoulder from patting myself on the back.

The results of his hard work were immediately obvious upon his return to Chicago, specifically in a strikeout rate that dropped to 25% after sitting around 34% over his first two seasons. His swinging-strike rate wasn’t actually down very much, just 15.7% to 14.7%, but his contact rate was up a handful of percentage points and his soft contact was down while his grounders were up a little. In short, Happ had learned to put the ball in play much more effectively with two strikes.

Through his first 44 plate appearances of the wild 2020 season, he’s made even bigger strides. Happ is striking out at just a 22.7% clip, walking at a 15.9% rate, and whiffing just 11.8% of the time. And just in case you’re preparing to mansplain with a “well actually…small sample size” retort, understand that swing-rate metrics stabilize at around 100 pitches seen. Happ’s well past that mark on the season.

When you’re tearing the cover off the ball to the tune of a 1.031 OPS, with an .817 against lefties and 1.110 against righties, talk of a platoon in center pretty much goes out the window. David Ross confirmed as much Sunday afternoon when asked about Nico Hoerner getting reps out there, as was the case when the Cubs faced rookie lefty Kris Bubic of the Royals last week.

“Right now, it’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross told reporters. “He’s the real deal, in my opinion.”

Barring any potential trademark infringement claims from Evander Holyfield, Happ has a firm grasp on the position and isn’t going anywhere. That doesn’t bode well for Albert Almora Jr., who would have presumably taken some more at-bats against southpaws had he worked through the offensive struggles that appear to have deepened last year in Houston.

Almora has hit .211 with a 42 wRC+ and .237 wOBA since the incident in which a foul ball from his bat struck a young girl in the stands. He was visibly shaken afterwards, understandably so, and his game hasn’t been the same since. Even pushing the start of the sample to July 26 of last year, Almora has an anemic 40 wRC+ with a .232 wOBA and just two total extra-base hits (both homers) over just 73 plate appearances.

Far from an arbitrary date, July 26 is when Happ was recalled from Iowa. All he’s done over 200 plate appearances in that span is post a 140 wRC+ with a .383 wOBA and 25 XBHs (14 homers, 10 doubles, one triple) in 200 plate appearances. It’s painfully clear from the numbers who should be getting the starts, but Almora’s production has been at such a low level for such a long time that you have to wonder how he’s maintaining a roster spot.

Ross noted that his defense has been very strong and there could still be opportunities to face lefties and get pinch-hit appearances, though that’s even more baffling than letting him start. At least his defense is there for the whole game if he’s starting, but his 37 wRC+ and .230 wOBA against lefties over 114 plate appearances last season says he’s not the Cubs’ best option. His 72.4% contact rate is five points below his career average and his overall quality of contact is the worst on the team at this point.

All things considered, it seems as though the roster would be stronger by replacing Almora with Ian Miller. I’ll admit my own bias here because I became a big Miller fan during spring training and he was gracious enough to sit down for an interview with CI during the shutdown. That said, he would serve as a perfectly cromulent defensive replacement while also giving the Cubs a more dynamic speed element.

With seven-inning doubleheaders and runners on second to start extra innings, that skill could come in even more handy than usual. Miller can also lay down bunts and beat out infield hits, so he’d be more productive even with an identical contact profile to the man he’d ostensibly be replacing.

I don’t know whether or to what extent the front office is sticking with Almora out of stubbornness because he was their first draft pick with the Cubs. It’s even possible that they feel the support system in Chicago is best for his ability to rebound. The former would be incredibly irresponsible and the latter seems to fly in the face of logic, so perhaps there’s something else I’m missing here.

While the alternate site at South Bend isn’t exactly like playing minor league ball, Ross isn’t doing Almora any favors by giving him sporadic at-bats in the pinch. Not like the manager has much of a choice, since Almora’s not done himself any favors over the last year or so. As much as I like Almora as a person and have pulled for him to succeed since well before he was ever called up, I just can’t see how he makes the 28-man roster better right now.

When every game continues to matter more than ever, the Cubs need to be doing everything possible to maximize their shot at winning Rob Manfred’s piece of metal.

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