Ian Happ-ening upon a hot bat in June

June 23rd, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs have had to endure a wild ride of highs and lows in their 2022 season so far. In the last few weeks, it’s been a low point.

They only recently closed a 10-game losing streak on Friday vs. the Braves, and then suffered two lopsided losses to the Pirates to begin a series at PNC Park this week. But a seven-run second inning propelled them to a much-needed 14-5 win over the Bucs on Wednesday.

In the middle of it all was a Cubs hitter whose production has rarely wavered in the midst of the teamwide struggles, and who has become one of the game's most valuable -- and maybe overlooked -- outfielders.

After five runs had been plated in the second-inning outburst, Ian Happ stepped to the plate with Patrick Wisdom -- who notched his 14th homer and tallied four RBIs -- at first base. Happ saw Jerad Eickhoff’s full pitch mix in a five-pitch at-bat that led to a HBP in their first meeting of the game, so he wasted no time in their second, scorching a first-pitch fastball 413 feet to straightaway center field for his eighth homer of the season.

Happ has hit .380 in 71 at-bats in the month of June, which is the best mark of his career in a calendar month by more than 50 points. His strikeout rate this year has dropped by about 10 percent from last season, while his already strong walk rate has been even more solid at a 13.5 percent clip, putting him in the top five percent of qualified Major League batters.

Happ’s 2.1 wins above replacement through his first 66 games is the third-best mark among outfielders in the National League, per FanGraphs, proving just how much all-around value he’s provided in 2022 -- even if the first update of NL All-Star balloting didn’t reflect it with a 17th-place showing.

“There have been times in Ian’s career where he’s gone through some ups and downs and some struggles,” manager David Ross said, “and I think he’s learned over time just the maturation process of being consistent and being able to, the days you’re not seeing it, take a walk and have calm at-bats and not let the moment get too big.

“The more you put yourself in those moments, and the more you’re in those moments, the more you learn from them and grow from them.”

Despite the incredible stretch of hitting Happ has had recently, he’s still searching to find his out-of-the-park power. The homer on Wednesday was a step in the right direction. Happ doesn’t believe his dip in strikeout rate has been at the cost of power from last year, when he hit 25 dingers (16 in the second half alone).

“I’ve hit some balls where they could have been out and weren’t out, and that happens,” Happ said. “At no point last year was I trying to hit home runs in the second half, but it just happened. It’s a product of good swings.”

But maybe the most reassuring sign of all is how well the switch-hitting Happ has conquered left-handed pitchers this year. Entering Wednesday, he was hitting .360 with a .958 OPS in 55 plate appearances vs. lefties this season, as opposed to a .269 average and .825 OPS in 211 plate appearances against righties. It’s the first time in his career he’s hit better against lefties than righties.

Happ worked with hitting coach Greg Brown and his staff in Spring Training to make adjustments to put him in the best position against lefties, and it’s showed. It’s also allowed Ross to bat him higher in the order against left-handers as opposed to when he kept him in the back half early last season.

“It’s been a really consistent at-bat from both sides of the plate, and I think that’s something that he proved,” Ross said. “It’s not anything I’ve done. He’s proved that and earned the fact that he’s in there against righties and lefties.”

Last year was a big year for Happ not only because of those strides, but he also finally had a full season to get a look at pitchers around the league again. After two full seasons in 2017-18, Happ spent a good portion of ‘19 in the Minors, while the pandemic shortened the ‘20 season. Last season allowed him to “build a book” in his head of individual pitchers, as well as pitchers with similarities to exploit.

As underrated as his performance has been on a national level, maybe the most underrated part of Happ’s game is the model he provides to an increasingly young Cubs team. His faring in June is just reinforcement that he doesn’t let any noise or game results dictate the way he prepares for and approaches his at-bats. Happ has remained even-keeled and led by example.

“Just for him to bring the same attitude every day, the consistency of playing left field, the at-bats in the middle of the order, that stuff is invaluable right now,” Ross said. “Because the emotions can’t carry into how we’re playing into everybody’s at-bats.”