Chicago Cubs: Fans need to keep faith in Ian Happ

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

There’s not been a lot to cheer about for Chicago Cubs’ outfielder, Ian Happ. A leadoff home run on the first pitch, and a two-run single in Saturday’s win. But that bookends plenty of strikeouts for Happ.

When spring training started, the Chicago Cubs leadoff man was a mystery. Ever since the departure of Dexter Fowler the Cubs have been in search of “You go, we go.” Last season, they tried Kyle Schwarber. The prevailing thought was that he took pitches, would work the count. Reality? Schwarber was a trainwreck at the leadoff spot, eventually getting him sent to Iowa.

He would bounce back once he returned, but the numbers weren’t there for a leadoff hitter. The Cubs tried Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo and more. But no one seemed to “fit” in the role. So this season was going to be an open casting call. Albert Almora Jr seemed to be the one likely to take the position. But he struggled in camp and didn’t earn it.

Injuries and struggle

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Zobrist had some back issues that kept him out of spring training for a portion of it, and even with his body of work, he wasn’t going to get it. And then there’s Ian Happ. Happer? He strikes out too much. No. He won’t work. Ony thing is, he did. Way too well.

Happ earned the leadoff role. He did. And he solidified that by coming out and homering on the first pitch against the Marlins. It looked like we finally found our leadoff hitter. Except we didn’t.

When spring started, the issue was strikeouts. And while he was still vulnerable to it, he was hitting the ball at an unbelievable clip. Suddenly, the strikeouts weren’t that big a deal if he hit like this.

Too. Many. K’s

But since the start of the season, the strikeouts have come up and bit Happ–hard. Like, snatching him from the depths. In just seven games Happ is 5-for-28 with 17 strikeouts. Again, he bookended those numbers with two big hits. But that’s an alarming rate of K’s. Even more so when you’re the leadoff man.

It’s a small sample, but the biggest issue seems to be his inability to go to center field. Being a switch-hitter, his batted ball projections are somewhat expected. But not this year. According to Fangraphs, Happ has hit to left and right 45.5 percent of the time. To center? 9.1 percent. His previous low was 16.5 percent at the Single-A level. Very plainly, he’s trying to pull everything–and he’s coming up empty.

Swinging–a lot

Happ is swinging at pitches outside the zone (O-swing %) at about the same rate as last year (74.6 to 74.1). And he’s seeing less first strike (F-strike %) numbers than last year (58.8 to 53.3). But his contact rate is down from 67.3 to 54.7 on all pitches. If only there was a way to get him to learn a new philosophy with two strikes. Hmmm…

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That aside, fans shouldn’t lose their faith in Happ. He’s looking at his first full year in the majors, and there will indeed be growing pains. Understandably, Happ might need to be moved out of the leadoff spot and down in the order. Then again, some have argued that you only leadoff once in the game–so there’s that.

Because of where he was in the order, Happ had the opportunity to come up in the ninth with the big hit on Saturday. Happ won’t be in the order on Sunday as Almora will get the start. But he’ll get to enjoy his big hit for an extra day as the Cubs get ready to open up against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday.