Ranking the 5 best switch hitters in Cubs history
The Chicago Cubs have not had superstar switch hitters, but they have had some interesting and productive ones, including Ian Happ, who might be an ex-Cub in the not-so-distant future. So let’s take a look at where he ranks among the five best in franchise history. Statistics are from Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. WAR totals are for each player’s time with the Cubs.
#5: LF Walt Wilmot 1890-95, 9.1 WAR, 102 OPS+
Smoking can kill. On August 5, 1894, some idiot ignited a section of the stands in the West Side Grounds by dropping a cigar. A barbed wire fence blocked the fans’ only escape route, which was onto the field. Wilmot and a teammate each grabbed a bat and raced out to the fence, battering it down enough to allow the fleeing fans to escape. While there were over 200 injuries, no one was killed thanks to Wilmot’s quick action. History called Wilmot that day, and he answered.
A bat-first left fielder for the late stage Cap Anson teams, Wilmot had great speed and good power for the era. He led the NL in homers in 1890 with 13, and socked 11 the following year, good for third.
He also led the NL in errors both years, leading to his reputation as a defensive liability. Modern defensive metrics might be kinder to Wilmot. His range was well above the league average, and it appears he might not have had much help from his outfield mates. For example, in 1890 the team got just 159 plate appearances from the only two guys on the roster identified as center fielders (Elmer Foster and Jake Stenzel). Wilmot probably had to cover more ground than the label directions recommend
#4: OF Ian Happ 2017-22, 9.2 WAR, 114 OPS+
Happ has, at last, reached the promised land, but his path to Canaan was neither swift nor straight. He became an All-Star by cutting his strikeout rate from near 30 percent last season to just over 20 percent this year. Front offices have accepted much higher strikeout rates from hitters in recent years, but there’s a limit beyond which the Ks simply eat performance. Only six active hitters have career strikeout rates over 30 percent; they all either have tremendous power or aren’t very good.
Happ journeyed to the strikeout abyss and has now drawn back. He has the highest batting average and OBP of his career, and has played his way into the Corner Bats Available for Trade section of your local Baseball Depot. His fielding isn’t great, but that’s true of most corner bats: that’s why they’re in the corner. There’s no bright red on Happ’s Statcast page, but there’s hardly any blue either.
His adjustments have come at some cost. He has the lowest homer and hard hit rates of his career, at least as reported in Baseball Reference. (Statcast reports some lower hard hit rates earlier in his career.) HIs BABIP of .333 doesn’t scream “regression is coming!” but does suggest it.
Without sabermetrics, players with Happ’s strikeout propensity might never have made it to the majors. But what the stats giveth, they taketh away. Happ is exactly the kind of player – good but not great – who teams no longer shower with big free agent bucks. As such, it may make cold, hard economic sense for the Cubs to keep or even extend him rather than trade him for a couple of 21-year old relievers who throw 100+ mph but can’t find the zone with a GPS device.
If the Cubs keep Happ he has good chance of ending up on top of this list. And it may stave off a fan rebellion.
#3: CF Brian McRae 1995-97, 9.3 WAR, 101 OPS+
Brian McRae wasn’t with the Cubs long, but on the North Side he put together what might have been the best offensive stretch of his career. He slashed .271/.348/.416 and stole 78 bases at a nearly 80 percent success rate. He also had three of his four best defensive years with the Cubs, according to dWAR.
McRae’s biggest contribution to the franchise might have been that he anchored a blockbuster trade with the Mets that brought back, among others, righty hurler Mark Clark. Clark would give the Cubs 213 innings in 1998, helping to earn the Cubs their first postseason birth since 1989. Clark’s 4.84 ERA that year looks ghastly, but he was victimized by a porous infield defense.
#2: SS Don Kessinger 1964-75, 9.4 WAR, 73 OPS+
Here are slash lines for two guys:
- Guy A: .255/.315/.314
- Guy B: .235/.307/.293
You, being a reader of considerable educational attainment, have probably divined that one of those guys is Don Kessinger. The other is Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.
Yes, there’s a trick. Guy A is Kessinger, and that’s his career slash line. Smith is Guy B: those stats are for his first six years in the majors (1978-83). His career OPS+ to that point was 72, just about the same as Kessinger’s. After that? For the remainder of his career, Smith slashed .276/.354/.395, good for a 95 OPS+. From an offensive standpoint, Kessinger is what Smith would have been if Ozzie had never learned to hit.
Of course, defense is what separates these players. Kessinger had a career dWAR of 10.0. Ozzie had 12.5 … by 1982. He would finish with a dWAR of 44.2, best for any player at any position in baseball history.
#1: LF Augie Galan 1934-41, 18.6 WAR, 107 OPS+
Sunny, diminutive, and always hustling, Augie Galan was the quintessential fan favorite. He had an explosive first full season in the majors, slashing .314/.399/.467 for the North Siders in 1935. Galan led the majors in plate appearances and runs scored that year. He led the NL in steals (22) and the majors in getting caught (15). Yes, it was a different world.
To some extent, it was downhill for Galan from there. He achieved the best WAR of his career (5.4) that season, excluding his wartime seasons in Brooklyn. The next four years with Cubs were good but not great, and injuries began to plague him in 1940. You can see his knee problems on his Baseball Reference page: more than half of his 123 career steals came in just his first four major league seasons. After 1937 he would reach double digit steals again just once, with the wartime Dodgers squad.
Tiring of his injuries, the then-declining Cubs traded Galan to the Dodgers for reliever Mace Brown in August, 1941. Brown would never pitch with the major league club while Galan would go on to have a productive stay in Brooklyn, partially but not entirely thanks to depleted wartime pitching.
Cubs: Looking at some honorable mention candidates
No discussion of Cubs switch hitters would be complete without mentioning Ben Zobrist (6.7 WAR) and Dexter Fowler (6.4 WAR). Both had essential roles in 2016’s Taming of the Goat. Fowler ripped three doubles in the NLCS to help overcome the Dodgers, and Zobrist reached the pinnacle of the baseball mountain, earning World Series MVP honors with a ridiculous .357/.419/.500 line against Cleveland.
Carlos Zambrano (5.5 WAR) is the ninth-best Cubs switch hitter of all time, which is a bit surprising since pitching was his day job (that WAR number is just for his hitting, by the way). He’s tenth all time in home runs by a Cubs switch hitter, with 23, leaving Jerry Mumphrey and Damon Berryhill (tied for 11th with18 each) in the dust. Zambrano was no proto-Ohtani, as his career total of 240 strikeouts to 10 walks indicates, but his pinch-hitting would still fit in today’s game, with its bloated pitching staffs and short benches.
Zambrano was last seen pitching for the Chicago Dogs, and if that logo doesn’t make you hungry, I can’t help you.