Commentary: What's up with Ian Happ?
Jerome Miron - USA Today Sports

Commentary: What's up with Ian Happ?

by - Staff Writer -

Ian Happ is an admitted streaky hitter at the plate. That, of course, means that there are peaks and valleys when it comes to Happ as a hitter. Currently, Happ is in the midst of one of the valleys, which has been a steep valley for the Cubs’ left fielder.

Happ had a solid start to the season for Chicago, opening the campaign 14-40, suitable for a .350 batting average. Happ also drew eight walks in those first 11 games.

However, since April 9th, it has been tough sledding for Happ. The two-time Gold Glover is hitting just .170 with 18 hits and 15 walks in over 110 at-bats. Not to mention, Happ has not been producing runs, with just one home run and five RBI in that span. Happ also punched out 38 times during that time frame.

Nothing was highlighted more than Happ’s performance Monday in Atlanta. Happ struck out in his first three at-bats and had a chance to redeem himself in the top of the 9th of a 2-0 ballgame. Morel had just worked a 13-pitch walk to make it first and second with no outs in the 9th.

Happ swung at the first pitch of the at-bat and grounded a two-hopper to short for a tailor-made 6-4-3 double-play to run the Cubs out of the inning. Nico Hoerner flew out after, and the Cubs fell 2-0 to the Braves.

Before we get into Happ’s struggles, let’s discuss how he got there.

Happ was drafted out of Cincinnati in the first round of the 2015 MLB draft and made his debut two seasons later in May 2017. Happ homered 24 times in that rookie season, which was suitable for an eighth-place finish in that season’s Rookie of the Year voting. Happ was a mainstay in the 2018 Cubs’ lineup, but his power was down, and he struck out 167 times in his sophomore season.

Happ began his career as a second baseman and played a lot of infield and some outfield early on. He was inconsistent as a defender and did not have a long-term position.

The Cubs sent him to the minor leagues to begin the 2019 season and told him to focus on reducing his strikeouts, specifically from the right side, and on playing the outfield.

The switch-hitting Happ returned late in 2019 and was highly successful. He clubbed 11 home runs in 58 games and hit a then-best .264. He continued that in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, as he was the Cubs’ best player on a team that won the division. He even received MVP votes in that season.

This was also when Happ fully cemented himself as an outfielder. While players like Jon Jay, Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Nicholas Castellanos clogged his ability to get playing time — Happ impressed Cubs brass enough that he was the only player to get extended out of that list (more on that later).

In 2021, Happ set a career-high home runs with 25 but struck out far more frequently. At that 2021 trade deadline, the Cubs parted ways with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and others with a focus on being more contact-oriented. Happ responded nicely in 2022.

Happ’s stability in 2022 was keen. The former slugger hit .271 with an on-base percentage of .342 and was an extremely valuable player. His defense had improved so much that it was good enough to win a Gold Glove in left field, and he was named to his first career all-star game. Instead of dealing Happ at the 2022 trade deadline, he was rewarded with a three-year, 61-million-dollar contract extension.

He followed that up in 2023 with another solid season. While his average was down at .248, his on-base percentage was up at .360 because of 99 walks. According to the WAR (wins above replacement) statistic, Happ was a 4.2-win player in 2022 and a 33.0-win player in 2023 — not only above average but very good.

So what has happened in 2024? Happ’s power is down, his contact is down, his on-base is down, his slugging is down, his walks are down, and his strikeouts are way up.

“The easiest thing to do when you’re struggling is to tweak and work on a bunch of different feels I think," Happ told 670 The Score on Tuesday. "It’s not wholesale changes, but it’s different feels within the swing.”

The Cubs have had three outfielders play better than Happ this season in Cody Bellinger, Seiya Suzuki, and Mike Tauchman. Pete Crow-Armstrong has been much better defensively and it would be hard to be much worse than Happ at the plate. Alexander Canario is hitting well in Iowa and is another option at the major league level, as is Patrick Wisdom against lefties at the plate in the bigs.

There is speculation that Happ is playing injured because the Cubs couldn’t afford another injury to their outfield while Bellinger and Suzuki were hurt.

Happ was rewarded for the stability he provided during the Cubs’ roster transition from 2021 forward. In 2023, that contract was a bargain; now, in 2024, paying Happ over $20 million per year looks like a mistake. Happ certainly provides value defensively and as a leader, but his offense has been so bad in 2024 that it forces many Cubs fans to suggest the team moves off of Happ as soon as possible.

To that, I say pump the brakes.

But, a day off or a week on the bench to motivate Happ (much like Suzuki had in 2023) could be what Happ needs. He is a streaky hitter, so one of those peaks may be closer than we all think.

But no matter how you slice it, Happ HAS to be better — and better soon. The Cubs can’t afford to pay an automatic out of upwards of $20 million per year if they are serious about contending.

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