CHICAGO – Ian Happ carried himself like an All-Star before he actually became an All-Star. Happ’s edge is just as important as his bat speed, hand-eye coordination, and ability to switch-hit. He was a first-round selection from Cincinnati’s losing college program and it led him to the Wrigley Field clubhouse staff, older, more experienced players like Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo.
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Happ was there in Arizona for Kyle Schwarber’s clandestine visit during the 2016 playoffs, observing Schwarber as he ramped up after “season-ending”Surgery on his left leg. The morning after the Cubs won the World Series, Happ met Andy Haines, the organization’s minor-league hitting coordinator at that time, in a batting cage at the Mesa complex, getting back to work in the belief that he would become part of the next championship team in Wrigleyville. Happ scored a home run at Busch Stadium in his major-league debut. He finished his rookie season with 24 homers, and a.842 OPS. The defending World Series champions are Happ.
What makes this All-Star selection especially gratifying is that everything didn’t go according to plan, forcing Happ to make adjustments and grow from adversity. Happ was selected by the Cubs with the No. The Cubs selected Happ with the No. 9 pick in 2015’s draft, believing that, as a well-rounded college hitter he could be on an easier track to the majors and therefore a potential trade chip to obtain more pitching. Happ was moved to Triple-A Iowa by the Cubs to begin the 2019 season. He remained there until late July. Happ was hitting.183 at the All Star break last year. This reduced him to a part time role and made it look like a player who could be released after the season, rather than receiving a contract through arbitration.
Happ was able to figure out the details after Kris Bryant and Rizzo were traded by the Cubs. This makes it more difficult for this All-Star selection. Javier Báez at last year’s deadline, and embarked on a rebuild that may take longer than the organization initially anticipated. Happ’s story is part of the larger story around the rise and fall of a big-market franchise that will send two homegrown players to Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, and then explore the trade markets for Happ and catcher Willson Contreras before the Aug. 2 deadline.
“I definitely played with guys who have had a little bit of a smoother road,”Happ stated. “When I first came up, I kind of showed spurts of this ability. And then, you know, different things happen through the course of a career, of a season, that lead to ups and downs. Sometimes, you just have to learn a lot along the way. You have to take a lot in. It takes time. It takes at-bats. It takes experiences, whatever those are, whether it’s physically or mentally, to get to a point where you feel like you can do this every day at a high level.”
Happ thanked Theo Epstein, thanking him for the chance to play in Chicago. After the ex-Cubs president sent him a message of congratulations about the All-Star Game. Happ appreciated Joe Maddon’s talk about his off-field interests, such as wine and golf. This encouraged him to find ways to relax from what can sometimes be a stressful job. Happ said Heyward helped him to refocus his attention last season by talking him through the struggles and the mental side. Happ believed in the Cubs’ approach to managing their farm system in his time in the minors. They geared everything towards winning at the major-league level before hitting labs and pitching became the norm in player development. But Happ isn’t going to act surprised by his performance or undervalue himself in future contract talks or take the trade rumors personally.
“With Ian, he’s very smart and very confident,”Jason McLeod, who was responsible for scouting and player-development for the Cubs for almost a decade, now works as a special assistant for the Diamondbacks. “He’s not a guy that’s just going to take what you give him as the gospel and do it.”
Happ was clearly assigned to Iowa in spring training 2019 by the Cubs, which seemed to be a sign that they were trying prove a point. The Cubs made Mark Zagunis their Opening Day right fielder in 2019 and then extended a $15 million contract for David Bote. The Cubs recalled Addison Russell – who had served a suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy – from Triple A when Ben Zobrist took a personal leave of absence. The Cubs promoted Robel García – who had spent the previous five seasons out of affiliated baseball – before they called up Happ again.
“I was looking to bounce back and solidify myself as a big-leaguer,”Happ said. “And then being sent down – and being there for as long as I was – it was a huge challenge. Just at the time, it was that shock and thinking that you’re part of a group that felt so special. Not being able to be there with those guys and watching from afar was really a challenge and an introduction to the business side of the game. At that time, you get drafted by your organization and called up, you feel like all of those things support what you’re thinking. And before you know it, you’re watching.”
It’s not like the swing-and-miss issues crept up on the Cubs. These tensions existed for a young player who was part of a win-now team. They had to go through hitting coaches, offensive philosophies, budget changes and budget adjustments for baseball operations. McLeod observes from afar and, after watching the Diamondbacks play at Wrigley Field in May and recollecting all those swings that were captured by the Cubs on video, McLeod notices a hitter who has evolved to compensate for his weaknesses and respond to the high-speed fastball. Happ has changed his position, improved his posture, and altered his swing to unlock the next level of offensive potential.
“With a lot of successful players, that stubbornness is what helps make them good,”McLeod stated. “I think we saw that with Ian, especially early in his career. He felt he knew what he was really good at and what made him good. There was some stubbornness to change. (Again), for a guy like him, it’s probably what makes him so good. Especially in some of those early years in the big leagues, whether it’s stubbornness, whether it’s some resistance, whether it’s ‘I know what I do well, I know me better than you do,’ certainly there were some times where there was a little bit of frustration with that. But now as I see him, when I watch him on TV and when I saw him at Wrigley, he’s made clear fundamental changes.”
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It doesn’t have to be all launch angle all the time. David Ross, Cubs manager, said it all. “Having different clubs in your bag, so to speak, is important to him.”Despite statistically performing well upon his return to the big leagues during the final months of 2019, Happ actually missed fastballs in a higher third of the zone and above at his highest rate in his career (19.6%). That number has dropped steadily since, from 16.7 per cent in 2020 to 14.8 per season and 12.4percent this season, which is close to the league average.
The tweaks have led to a swinging-strike rate of 11.8 percent and a strikeout rate of 21 percent – both easily the lowest of his career – all while keeping a high walk rate (11.8 percent). His power has dipped a bit, but he’s proving to finally have the type of consistency that’s really kept him from the type of recognition – an All-Star Game nod – that had never come with his previously erratic month-to-month play. FanGraphs says that despite playing in only 87 games his 2.3 WAR is almost a half-win higher than his previous career high.
Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer doesn’t have to trade Happ this summer, either, because he will remain under club control next season. Happ, who turns 28 next month could make the Cubs even more appealing to a contender for the playoffs. Happ is a better defender in left base, thanks in part to his focus of route-running, positioning, but that spot is relatively easy to fill, compared to shortstop or catcher, and the Cubs have many outfield prospects. It’s also a matter of supply and demand at the trade deadline.
“The numbers don’t lie for where the league is offensively,”Happ said. “It’s really, really hard to hit right now in baseball. It’s hard because of how good the pitching is, because of how developed that side of the game is, because of shifts, because of baseballs, because of all kinds of stuff.”
Happ has a sophisticated understanding of the landscape after serving as the team’s union representative during MLB’s lockout and being selected as an alternate for baseball’s new competition committee. Ross pointed out Happ’s ability to play consistently. “without looking over his shoulder” after last year’s trade deadline, when he hit .282 with 15 homers, 40 RBIs and a .921 OPS. This momentum carried over into the 2022 season, which was rewarding from an individual standpoint (.280 average, 9 homers and 41 RBIs), but disappointing from a team perspective (34-55).
The Cubs will have to determine if Happ is the advanced hitter who attacked his weaknesses and capitalized on those opportunities – and reinvest in his future – or else sell high on a streaky player on a losing team. Happ is capable of handling the truth in any situation.
“I try to give honesty in those conversations,” Ross said. “Like, ‘Here’s what the numbers say. Here’s what I see and what I believe. I want you to be able to work through that. But this is where we’ve got to improve.’ Somebody (asked me) the other day about how rewarding it was for the organization. All that’s great, but you tell a player where they need to get better and the player goes and gets better. That’s on the player. The player did that. The player became an All-Star. And I think that’s the cool thing to me. He took the truth and made it work for him.”
(Top photo: Jon Durr / USA Today Sports)