Chicago Cubs 2023 Season Preview: Left fielder Ian Happ
Keeping up with our season previews for the upcoming 2023 Chicago Cubs campaign, It's time to dive into Ian Happ. Looking to build on a career year, Happ's success is imperative to the Cubs if they have any real chance to make some noise in the NL Central. Now 28 years old, Happ is in his prime, and on a contract year, he will have all the incentive in the world to give it everything he has.
After signing Dansby Swanson to a seven-year deal this winter, the Cubs signaled their readiness to compete. Wishful thinking tells you the Cubs need to lock up Happ before he tests free agency, as so many recent Cubs stars have. Nevertheless, the Cubs now boast their best chance to play competitive baseball games since 2021. Looking ahead at the outlook for Happ, there are certainly mixed feelings when you break it all down:
2023 Fangraphs ZiPS projections: .244/.329/.428/114 wRC+, 21 HRs, 68 RBIs, 2.8 WAR
Baseball Reference 2023 projections: .252/.332/.437, 20 HRs, 66 RBIs, 57 BBs, 143 K's, 508 ABs.
Journey with me down the rabbit hole for a minute as I explain why I'm personally higher on Happ, at least from a batting average perspective. For one, he essentially improved his slash line against every single type of pitch he saw:
Fastball 2022: .265/.358/.531
Fastball 2021: .264/.384/.535
Changeup 2022: .275/.328/.400
Changeup 2021: .260/.296/.403
Slider 2022: .200/.230/.305
Slider 2021: .141/.272/.321
Cutter 2022: .485/.585/.697
Cutter 2021: .179/.258/.357
Curveball 2022: .250/.329/.426
Curveball 2021: .250/.308/.500
Every pitch listed in 2022 was a pitch Happ saw at least 200 times. For every slash line per respective pitch to be equal or better, it's not fair to say that Happ's batting average should drop off 27 points from .271 to .244, as Fangraphs suggests. Drastic improvement was made across the board. Though I agree that he won't hit more than 23-25 long balls, I can envision an uptick in RBIs, considering he will have better protection around him in the lineup with guys that also get on base.
Chicago Cubs: How can Happ take a step forward in 2023?
2022 was a year in which Happ reinvented his approach at the plate. He sacrificed power for contact, lowering his K rate from 29.2% in 2021 to a career-best 23.2% this past season. Moving forward, it will be about keeping that same approach but adding those numbers you don't see in the basic stat sheet.
For example, Happ's 17 homers in 2022 were way down from the 25 we saw in 2021. However, he managed 42 doubles in '22 compared to just 20 the year prior, which is why his slug% (bases averaged per at-bat with 1.000 being one base per AB) was higher, even with the drop off in ISO.
Another reason I'm more bullish on Happ in 2023 is that given his switch-hitting ability, Happ pulled the ball 42% of the time from both sides of the plate, inducing at least medium contact (up to 94.9 mph) 50.6% of the time against lefties and 56.1% of the time against righties. Last year, he also had a ground ball rate of 55.1% against LHP and 44% vs. RHP, respectively. Therefore, Happ will pick up a few more hits through the infield based solely on the banning of the shift this coming season alone.
You'll notice that Happ's average launch angle in 2022 was 10.9 degrees, up from an average of 9.9 in 2021. However, keeping in mind the dreadful start to Happ's 2021 campaign, that number on a per-average basis is certainly deflated compared to what he did in the second half of that season:
Happ's entire 2022: .271/.342/.440, 120 wRC+, .339 wOBA, .169 ISO - 17 HRs, 72 RBIs
2nd half only 2021: .268/.350/.536, 135 wRC+, .375 wOBA, .268 ISO - 16 HRs, 43 RBIs.
Happ's second half of 2021 was essentially his 2022, with more pop and harder hit rates in his bat. Looking back at 2018, when Happ had an average launch angle of 14 degrees, he also had a strikeout rate of 36.1%. The goal here, clearly, is to put it all together now. You'd love to see him really start driving the ball in the air while keeping the whiffs to a minimum.
For someone who has been consistently making improvements for a year and a half, the drop-off in production assumed by his projections is borderline disrespectful at best. Ultimately, to take the next step forward, he will need to replicate that second half of 2021 (minus the 29.3% K rate) over an entire year, both with average and power, if he is ever to get to a 4.0+ WAR player. In doing so throughout a whole season, Happ can take himself from an All-Star caliber player in 2022 to an MVP candidate in 2023.