Chicago Cubs: Can Cubs be patient as Ian Happ figures it out?

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Two years removed from their World Series title, the Chicago Cubs still have one of the youngest rosters in the league. But now, it’s all about performance.

Switch-hitting 24-year-old Ian Happ is among those headlining the Chicago Cubs young core, one that has a tremendously high ceiling, at that. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein recently made it clear that moving forward it was performance over potential.  As trade rumors abound could it be a mistake for the Cubs to sell short on Happ’s potential?

Let’s get the eye candy out of the way right now. Yes, Happ homered in his 2017 big league debut in 2017 against the Cardinals, no less.  Then he led off the 2018 season with a home run on the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season.  You have to love it, how can you not be romantic about baseball, right?

Well, that’s great but sabermetrics leavens the romance with hard facts.  Here is what you need to know about Happ.

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Finding his groove at the plate

Since his debut, Happ has played in 257 games, earning a 3.3 fWAR, and a 107 OPS+ while slugging 39 home runs.  He doesn’t take many walks (109 in 875 PAs; 12.4 percent) but his walk rate was far better in 2018 compared to 2017.  Happ does strike more than the Cubs might like (296; 33.8 percent).  But he does get on base (.341 OBP) and on that front he also improved over 2017.

One of the qualities that many point out is that Happ is a switch hitter and therefore gives Maddon flexibility whether Happ starts a game or comes off the bench as a pinch-hitter.

Most switch hitters have power from one side and hit more for average on the other.  Ben Zobrist over his career has slugged 128 home runs from the left side as opposed to 38 from the right side.  His batting average, though, is 30 points higher from the right side.

Happ certainly has power from the left side, slugging 29 of his 38 homers as a lefty.  But unlike Zobrist, his average is lower from the right side as is his on-base percentage.  In fact, Happ just isn’t very good as a right-handed batter, slashing .239/.301/.397.  It might make sense for Happ to drop the switch-hitter role in the future, but time will tell.

A defense in progress but to where?

Maddon has used Happ in several roles in the field, mostly in the outfield but also at second, third, and even a few games at first. His infield play is fairly limited over the past two seasons and he is not among the strongest options at any spot there.  His best outfield spot, where it seems most likely he’ll get the most playing time, is left field, where he posted a 12.4 UZR-150 in 2018.

Unfortunately, there is another left-hand hitting left fielder on the roster, Kyle Schwarber, and he’s both better defensively in left field and, overall, is a better hitter.

What was the rush?

Happ was brought up in 2017 at age 22, after just 26 games at Triple-A Iowa, when injuries hit the Cubs.  True, Happ slashed .298/.362/.615 in those 26 contests, but the Cubs play in the very hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. In 65 games at Double-A Tennessee, he slashed just .262/.318/.415.

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At this point, it is likely past the point of Happ heading to Triple-A to polish his game so he’ll have to figure it out in spring training and off the bench, either with the Cubs or elsewhere.  But I do think there is more to this kid than we’ve seen so far.