Ian Happ has been at the major league level with the Chicago Cubs for three seasons, but he doesn’t have a real full season of plate appearances under his belt. After being the ninth overall pick in 2015 and tearing up the minors, high expectations were slapped on Happ when he made the bigs in 2017. In 315 MLB games, he hasn’t hit poorly by any means, but he also hasn’t reached the offensive ceiling that his prior performance has given him.
In his career, he’s been roughly an above-average hitter, but made a significant jump in his offense last season, improving from his 2018 by 21%. This success came after Happ was sent down to Triple-A for 99 games in 2019. At first glance, it’s easy to say that it was a product of a small sample size and that things would even out eventually, but I think Happ made a change in Iowa that led to his improvement.
Swing! Or Don’t! Or Do?
Sometimes it’s a swing change, or a different thought process to hitting, that leads to newfound success, but for Happ, it looks like he made a big improvement in his plate discipline. Before his MLB debut, Happ posted a 22.8% strikeout rate across five minor league levels. But in his first major league season, he struck out 31.2% of the time, and in his second season, he struck out 36.1% of the time. These strikeout rates are way too high to post consistent numbers, so it’s clear that something had to change. In the 99 games that Happ spent at Triple-A in 2019, he posted a strikeout rate of 26.3%, and when he returned to the big leagues, he delivered a much-improved strikeout rate of 25%.
So what could have lead to this? Let’s look at the plate discipline statistics.
The general conclusion here can be that Happ saw an improvement when he started swinging more, not less. He chased a bit more in 2019 but returned to swinging at more pitches in the zone as he did in his solid 2017 season. Additionally, he made better contact overall but saw a huge jump in his contact rate on pitches inside the zone. The change in his swinging strike rate was marginal but still moved in an encouraging direction. So we know his contact improved, but I wanted to take a look at it by pitch type. Below is his swing and miss rate, or SwStr%, broken down by the three main types of pitch.
The improvements versus fastballs and breaking balls are small, but probably not completely insignificant. Fewer swings and misses inherently help contact rates, so it could have still played a role in his best offensive production. But maybe pitch selection wasn’t the main driving force in his increased swing rate. Instead, maybe it was the count.
Here we see his swing rate based on the count. Although we can’t be certain, it looks that Happ adopted a much more aggressive approach, specifically in two-strike counts. Maybe part of Happ’s adjustment was an emphasis on forcing contact in two-strike counts, so he swung more simply with the intent to put the ball in play. From a different perspective, maybe the time in Triple-A just gave him the return of confidence that he needed. I know for myself as a ballplayer, much of how I performed at the plate was reliant on how confident I was in myself. When things were going well, I could get to an 0-2 count and I knew I wasn’t going to get out, but when things got rougher an 0-2 count felt like the worst thing imaginable. It’s hard to conclude what exactly made Happ start to swing more, but it certainly looks like the aggressiveness caused a direct benefit.
Looking Forward to 2020
The biggest question is whether or not Happ’s 2019 success is repeatable in 2020. Fortunately, we got to see some of Happ in this year’s spring training, and the results were extremely encouraging. Happ stepped up to the plate 30 times and slashed .481/.500/.815, resulting in an OPS of 1.315. He knocked three doubles and two home runs while holding a strikeout rate of just 13.3%. Typically, I wouldn’t care about just 30 plate appearances, especially when they come from ST, but given Happ’s success to end 2019 and his low strikeout rate to start 2020, it makes me think that he really is an improved hitter.
Happ goes undrafted in almost every draft you can think of. Although he won’t have the 2B eligibility he has had in previous seasons, his bat could boost any OF if it produces as it has in his past 186 plate appearances. Happ looked poised to make his mark before the delayed season. Whenever this season resumes, take a flier on him and watch what Happ-ens.
Photos by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Zach Ennis (@zachennis on Twitter and Instagram)