Ian Happ’s Path Forward

Back in the times that we all assumed Bryce Harper would be patrolling right field at Wrigley come the start of 2019, discussion of Ian Happ focused largely on his value as a trade piece or a 4th outfielder. With Harper likely to sign elsewhere and with the Cubs currently not linked to any other free agent hitters of note, Happ figures to play a more prominent role in the 2019 team.

Happ is a study in contrasts in terms of his baseball abilities. He has significant power, but he also has significant contact problems. He has the versatility to play almost every defensive position, but he doesn’t play any of them particularly well. He’s among the streakiest players on the Cubs roster during the time he’s been a big leaguer, at times getting on base at a great clip and hitting for significant power, and at other times striking out multiple times per game on a consistent basis.

Different metrics have pretty different views of Ian Happ’s 2019. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference metrics viewed Happ’s 2019 offensive production as average to slightly above average, with a 100 OPS+ and a 106 wRC+. Baseball Prospectus’s new DRC+ was not as kind to Happ, checking at 94.

In all of those metrics, 100 is viewed as roughly average. So, I think it’s fair to say that Happ was roughly an average major league hitter in 2019 when we take in the aggregate of how various advanced metrics view him. Happ was worth 1.5 fWAR in 2018, down .4 from his 2017 performance despite getting ~50 more plate appearances.

For Happ, like a lot of Cubs hitters, this decline stemmed from a steep decline in power. Besides hitting 9 less home runs, Happ saw a steep decline in his power numbers overall – his ISO dropped nearly a full 100 points.

And unlike some other Cubs, Happ didn’t see any meaningful improvement in his ability to make contact (even bad contact) under the tutelage of Chili Davis. Happ’s K% went from 31.2% to 36.1 % from 2017 to 2018.

Despite Happ’s struggles at times, he still was able to showcase some of the skills that made him a high level prospect. Perhaps most notably, Happ continued to demonstrate superior command of the strike zone. Among regulars, he was second only to Kyle Schwarber in BB%. This allowed him to get on base at a respectable enough .353 clip, a differential of .120 points from his batting average.

Happ also seemed to solidify himself as a major league outfielder. That’s not to say he was anything close to exceptional in any outfield spot, but it at least seems clear that the Cubs see the outfield as his most viable path forward. Compared to the 2017 season in which Happ shifted around the outfield spots along with both second and third base, Happ got the chance to focus on developing his skills as an outfielder in 2018, starting only 12 games in the infield, all of them at third base. By all accounts, Happ works hard and should continue to improve in the outfield even if he’ll never be the defensive equal of Albert Almora or Jason Heyward.

The biggest obstacle to Happ moving forward isn’t his somewhat questionable defense – the Cubs could live with that if he hits like they think he can. It’s his rocky platoon splits.

Happ largely replicated his success from 2017 against RHP, posting an OPS over .800 in both years. However, Happ dramatically regressed against LHP, going from a .789 OPS in 113 PAs in 2017 to a .608 OPS in 117 PAs in 2018. That difference is effectively the main reason that Happ’s overall numbers were dragged down so far.

Those platoon splits have been a consistent problem for Happ – he’s had fairly significant splits in every year of his professional career except one. That one year was 2017, in which he was able to hit from both sides well enough in both Iowa and Chicago. Exactly what Ian Happ can become depends in many ways on the degree to which he can replicate his competence batting from the right side of the plate.

With the Cubs current roster construction, I’d be in favor of giving Happ that chance. I don’t hate Albert Almora, but I don’t think he has any projectability beyond what he did in 2018, and what he did in 2018 isn’t something that I want getting super regular playing time. There have been a lot of rumblings about some within the Cubs being unhappy with Joe Maddon’s consistent juggling of the lineup, and giving Happ more regular playing time could be one of the areas that juggling could be somewhat lessened – though I don’t think there’s any chance it’s going to completely go away.

Ultimately, Happ represents an extremely valuable asset for the Cubs despite his down year last year. For all his struggles, he was roughly a league average hitter with defensive versatility at 23 years old. He’s demonstrated the ability to hit for significant power, has a great command of the strike zone, and by all accounts is one of those great “clubhouse guys” that the Cubs say they value so much.

At worst, the Cubs have a very useful platoon player who is likely to hit for significantly more pop than he did last year going forward. Optimistically, they have a guy coming into his 3rd major league season at only 24 years old – despite some struggles at the major league level, it’s hard not to stay excited about a guy like that.

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