Cubs News: Ian Happ is expected to be team’s leadoff hitter in 2021

(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

If the Cubs don’t make a splash, expect Ian Happ to bat leadoff again in 2021.

For roughly two-thirds of the shortened 60-game campaign this summer, Ian Happ looked like the real deal. Then, he went into a tailspin to end the year, hitting just .213/.286/.360 over the season’s final month – leaving a huge hole in the Cubs batting order.

Now, his shortcomings late in the year certainly stood out more given the tremendous struggles of pretty much every key player on the roster, most prominently Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. When Happ was tearing the cover off the ball, it was much easier to look past his underperforming teammates. But when the whole unit fell quiet, it obviously stood out – and not in a good way.

More from Cubbies Crib

Despite the tale of two halves, if you will, Happ was a stellar bat in two key situations: leading off the game or leading off an inning. When he led off a game, the switch-hitting outfielder put up a 1.079 OPS. When leading off a frame, he clocked in with a .936 OPS. Now, his overall leadoff numbers aren’t anywhere near as promising. But those samples do tell us he has what it takes to be successful at the top of the order.

And, at least right now, that’s what David Ross is planning on heading into 2021. He told 670 AM WSCR this month Happ is his leadoff man. That is, unless the front office goes out and adds a proven leadoff presence to the mix, which seems pretty unlikely given their penny-pinching approach early this offseason.

Now, we know the leadoff spot has been an unmitigated disaster for the Cubs since Dexter Fowler took off for St. Louis following the 2016 season. Now, no one is saying the fan favorite outfielder was worth what the Cardinals paid him (he’s been a just below-average offensive player since joining the team and on a five-year, $82.5 million deal, he didn’t come cheap). But Chicago’s repeated failure to address the leadoff spot derailed all hopes of becoming a dynasty in the post-2016 era.

Joe Maddon tried everything: Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, even Anthony Rizzo. Now, the latter had pretty consistent success in the role, but you don’t necessarily want your annual 30-homer, 100-RBI threat to be hitting leadoff. In his first year at the helm, Ross favored Happ – and it paid off big-time until he popped a ball off his own face in early September.

Now, Happ is by no means a perfect offensive player. He’s got a lot more pop from the left side and has pretty significant right-left splits. But he’s always shown an ability to work counts and averaged the highest hard-hit rate of his career in 2020 at 48.5 percent. 

Next. Cubs took more pitches and struggled against fastballs. dark

If he can build on the successes from this year and take that next step as the team’s everyday center fielder, we might see the Cubs look to lock him up long-term as a building block for the future. But first, he’ll need to show up and lead again in 2021 for a team that’s very much in-flux.