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Is it Ian Happ's Time To Shine?

A rare smile by Happ! pic via Getty Images

2019 Was a disappointing year for a lot of Cubs player's individual seasons. We saw regression from players like Lester, Quintana, Kimbrel, Almora, and Baez, among others. One player who had a particularly odd season was Ian Happ. After playing 142 games in 2018, he was sent to the minors in spring training as a surprise cut. He was there a good chunk of the season, and didn't come back until late July. He was good for the limited time he had, so now the question is if he figured it all out and will stick at the big league level. Let's examine.

In 2017, he came up young, maybe too young in hindsight. He's successful, struck out too much but with solid power. Batting average and walk rates were good enough too. In 2018 he regressed, particularly in the second half (which we'll get into). His walk rate increased, but so do the strikeouts. In 2019, he spent a good chunk of the year in the minors, then came back to post career best BA, SLG, and OPS+. So what happened in 2018, and did he fix it going forward?

To jump in further, here are some of his career splits. Notice that he's essentially hit as a LHB 75% of the time, and as a RHB the other 25%. Counting stats aside, his OPS is .150 lower as a RHB. Batting average is similar, but OBP is a .050 drop and SLG is a massive .100 difference. That's nearly a drop of 25 in OPS+. These trends rang true again in 2019, so it's likely a career norm for him to be better as a LHB.

My hunch and memory indicates that Ian would go through slumps where he'd strike out too much. So I generated a messy chart from FanGraphs to show all his major statistics and try to find the trends for when he was hitting well, in addition to the slumps. It's easiest to read as the light blue being bad, everything else being good. Here it is:

So his statistics are nearly all inverse of his K rate. When he strikes out, he's not doing damage. Furthermore, you can see how he's had several major slumps. He had 3 shorter ones in 2017, where he likely went back and forth making adjustments as a rookie and 3 longer ones as a sophomore in 2018. He started off kind of slow, then had his biggest peak to that point. Then a drop for nearly 30 games, followed by another spike. Then he was below average the rest of the season, with two sub .600 OPS moments. Woof. Then 2019 saw the same kind of roller coaster, but in a shortened time frame. He did spike at the end to a new height we hadn't yet seen though.

Here's an easier to read chart:

His strikeouts and OPS are nearly inverse. When slumping, he's striking out 40% of the time. At his best, it's closer to 25% consistently. So the plan for Happ is pretty simple in my opinion. Don't strike out. His walk rate tends to mirror the same trends as his K rate, so it's not like he takes more walks when striking out less. Happ's key is typically contact. Proof:

Besides the 3 exceptions around games 60, 220 and 300, it's pretty consistent. And that's good. That means that as a young player, he's likely getting beat by specific pitching. Either pitchers knowing and working his weaknesses well, or an inability to hit a certain pitch/location. That's the kind of thing that can be fixed with experience and repetitions. My next task was to chart Ian Happ's OPS against different pitch types. I'll spare you charts, but you can look it up for yourself if you'd like.

• Fastballs: Fairly consistent. He saw fastballs 40% of the time, and his OPS remained consistent among the usage. So that isn't it. I was relieved, because I was concerned that Happ had a long swing and couldn't catch up to heat.

• Changeups: Very inverse. During 5 of his major slumps. the percentage of changeups he saw went from 13% to 18%+. Pitchers who can keep his timing off succeed.

• Curveballs: This one is interesting. Throughout his rookie season, it's very directly correlated. As he saw more curves, he hit better. In 2018, the relationship was inverse, particularly during his 3 major slumps. he saw curves 8% of the time on average, but had 3 stretches in '18 where he saw them 14% of the time during his slumps. Then in 2019, the relationship reverted back to the direct correlation, where he was hitting curves again.

• Sliders: Fairly correlated. More sliders, better OPS throughout his entire career, with late 2018 being the lone major exception.

After studying the data, I can see why Happ went back to the minors for the beginning of 2019. He suddenly couldn't hit curveballs and pitchers were exploiting this. He was regressing on something he already knew how to do. He went down to AAA, and seems to have figured it out. Great! That also explains why the Cubs brought him back even though his OPS in AAA was only .795. It was more a developmental thing than a "we need to see him rake." thing. He still struggles against changeups a bit, but it makes sense given his profile as a power hitter who Ks. Pitchers get ahead, and then throw off his timing. It's a common struggle for that kind of hitter. It'll likely be a weakness that continues for the rest of his career. We'll see.

My last question is if Ian Happ is swinging at balls. One last chart:

If you missed Steve's stats, Z swing is swinging at strikes, O swing is swinging at balls. OPS is in there to remind you of when Happ was hot or cold. Typically, a higher Z swing and O swing are good (swinging at strikes not balls), and a lower Z and higher O is bad (swinging less at strikes and more at balls). If a player has pitch recognition issues, you may see the two swing percentages have a more inverse relationship. With Happ, his swing percentages are similar. Seems like the more he swings, the better he does. He had stretches of career low Z swing in 2018, which matched up with his OPS slump. This chart alone doesn't tell you the full story for his hitter profile, but it does indicate that late 2018 was a bit outside of his career norms.

Overall, I think all of this bodes well for Ian Happ in the future. If he can recognize off-speed pitches better, he could take the next step forward. He seems to drive pitches when he recognizes them. He he can learn to stay on changeups, and recognize curves, he'll be a solid overall hitter. He's going into his age 25 season, so I think that with more maturity, he'll get there.


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