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Why Ian Happ is Set to Have a Breakout Season in 2020

While the perception surrounding Happ’s name has been that of disappointment since he was demoted to the minors at the onset of last season, the trend in his numbers suggests he is set to breakout.
Photo: Mark Brown/Getty Images

Photo: Mark Brown/Getty Images

Ian Happ has had one of the most up-and-down starts to a career as any Cub in recent memory. After fast-tracking his way through the Cubs farm system, which featured only one full season in the minors, Happ debuted in 2017 and immediately showed substantial upside. He followed in both Kris Bryant's and Kyle Schwarber’s footsteps of abruptly bursting onto the MLB scene after being called up. But after a 2018 campaign in which he regressed in virtually every single offensive and defensive statistic, including posting a woeful 36.1% strikeout rate, the fanbase prematurely wrote Ian Happ off as a guy who, at his best, was a platoon type player. Then, after his catastrophic Spring Training last year that caused him to start the season in the minors, he was subsequently labeled a bust.

While this criticism was fair after the 2018 season, as even I started to believe it myself, it objectively does not have merit anymore. Any fan that still thinks Happ doesn’t have the tools to be an everyday player because he “strikes out too much” was not paying attention during the last two months of the 2019 campaign. At all. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the data yourself:

Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

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These statistics encompass every factor that goes into evaluating a player’s offensive worth. As you can see, not only did Happ cut his strikeout rate by 11.1% in one season, he also improved his ability to hit for contact and for power, evident by his batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and ISO all increasing. He also boasted a 127 wRC+, the same as All-Star catcher Willson Contreras, which means he hit 27% better than the average major leaguer last season. These stats show enough of an improvement for him to unequivocally go into spring training as the opening day centerfielder, as I explained in this article last week.

But hold on, the list of improvements doesn’t stop at the plate. It also extends to the other two components of the game as well: defense and baserunning. Happ improved his Def from -4.0 in 2018 to 2.9 in 2019, in addition to his BsR from 0.4 to 1.4 in the same timeframe. He refined every single aspect of his game in one season, yet somehow there’s a great deal of skepticism around the media and fanbase regarding his ability to provide meaningful value to the roster. What more does a guy have to do to get an opportunity to be an everyday player? When you combine all these statistical improvements with him being a switch-hitter that can play six positions, you have a guy that truly has a limitless ceiling.

Another aspect of Happ’s development the past couple years that has gone unnoticed is the fact he improved in 2019 after regressing in 2018. This means that, after baseball received enough data and information to pinpoint his flaws and attack his weaknesses in 2018, Happ adjusted his approach at the plate to counter the opposition. This is when you know you have a guy that could be special. Having a ten-plus year career in the big leagues isn’t about how you perform once you debut, it’s about how you perpetually adjust your approach to mask your weaknesses and counter anything the opposition throws at you. Most players cannot do this consistently, which is why prospects that initially show promise end up fizzling out and find themselves out of the league in a year or two. It happens all the time. That’s what people thought would happen to Happ in 2018, but they were proven wrong.

The one argument against this article that Happ naysayers will state is last year’s considerably small sample size, as he only totaled 156 plate appearances. While this is legitimate, it still doesn’t prove why Happ shouldn’t start in centerfield Opening Day, receive 600 plate appearances, and finally be allowed to prove that he can be an everyday player. Every single other member of the Cubs’ core has been given this opportunity, so it’s about time the organization gives him the same chance they gave Albert Almora one year ago. Ride Happ this entire upcoming season like you would Javier Baez and gauge Happ's production. If last year is any indication, he’ll be one of the most valuable players on the roster.