Boy, what a boring career. An average player, and average in a consistent way. There are no swings between 3 and 0, no is-it-a-breakout spikes or is-he-toast dips. Let’s zoom in slightly, though, because I’ll level with you: that was a cherry-picked set of statistics:
Fewer homers, wildly varying walk and strikeout rates — those static WAR totals were a trick! If you’ll forgive me the conceit, let’s do one last reveal of more statistics:
When he reached the major leagues, Happ had an old man’s game trapped in a young man’s body; enough patience to draw a raft-load of walks, but also enough patience to get down in counts and strike out at an astronomical rate. The problem was that he didn’t draw enough of those walks to make up for the strikeouts: his batting eye simply wasn’t good enough to let him get away with the takes. After reaching a two-strike count, Happ struck out 54.4% of the time — that’s bad! The major league average over that timeframe stands at 42%.
Despite Happ’s strikeout issues, he did enough damage on contact to get by. That makes the natural adjustment clear: swing more. As Tony Wolfe chronicled, Happ did just that when he returned to the majors last September after an extended stay in Triple-A. He got more aggressive on first pitches, second pitches, in-zone pitches, out-of-zone pitches — pretty much anything you can think of. It paid off. He shaved 11 points off of his strikeout rate at the expense of 6 points of walk rate, and he didn’t sacrifice any contact quality in doing it.
In 2020, Happ has been even better. Though he’s undeniably hitting above his true talent level, that’s true of pretty much anyone with a 191 wRC+, and the peripheral numbers are all encouraging: he’s returned to his previous high in walk rate without markedly increasing his strikeouts, and he’s still a menace on contact. Will his .405 BABIP and .356 ISO hold up? Certainly not. Even without those, though, the overall package looks pretty compelling.
How has he done it? Interestingly, his adjustment from last year seems to be completely forgotten. In 2018, Happ was in the 22nd percentile for swing rate — on the passive side. In 2019, he rocketed up to the 82nd percentile. This year, he’s swinging less than ever; he’s swung at only 37.7% of the pitches he’s seen, good for the 13th percentile among qualifying players. Uh, what?
Happ hasn’t distributed his rediscovered patience evenly. Take a look at his swing rate by count the last three years:
|Count||2018 Swing%||2019 Swing%||2020 Swing%|
Early in the count, Happ has returned to his old ways, and even gone further. That low swing rate early in counts has done wonders; he’s swung at only two of the 48 pitches outside the zone he’s seen to open at-bats. He’s faced an 0-1 count 43 times this year and a 1-0 count 42 times. In his career before this year, he’d gotten down in the count 496 times and ahead 425 times. Those little edges add up.
One place where it doesn’t add up to take a strike? When that strike ends your turn at the plate. Keeping some of his two-strike aggression has paid off, because Happ used to watch far too many third strikes. It’s not enough — he’s still too passive with two strikes — but it’s a step in the right direction, at least.
One confounding factor makes me hesitant to say that Happ’s newfound non-contact success is sustainable. Pitchers have treated him with far more caution this year than in the past, throwing him pitches in the strike zone only sparingly. Combine early-count patience with pitchers gearing up for 2019’s swing pattern, and you have a recipe for plenty of walks and plenty of up-in-the-count hitting.
One big benefit of hitting while ahead: you can hunt fastballs. Happ does damage when he connects on fastballs; from 2017 to 2018, he was 10th in the major leagues when it came to wOBACON on fastballs (mmmm, delicious bacon). The top five players were J.D. Martinez, Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo, Bryce Harper, and Giancarlo Stanton. This is a list of fastball mashers.
That sounds great. Here’s the thing: despite that, he finished only 79th (among 210 qualifiers) in runs above average per 100 fastballs seen. How is that possible? It’s because of that pesky passive approach. In that same 2017-2018 stretch, he took 23.3% of in-zone fastballs on two-strike counts — essentially a one-way ticket back to the bench. That rate was third in baseball, behind only noted strikeout aficionados Chris Davis and Gallo.
In a small sample this year, Happ is still far too hesitant on two-strike fastballs: he’s taken 21.4% so far. By getting ahead early and swinging at fastballs, however, he’s significantly increased a key rate: the percentage of his batted balls that come off of fastballs. Two thirds of his fair contact has come off of heaters so far this year, up from a previous 59.3% rate (league average is 59.4% for 2019 and 2020 combined).
It’s a brilliant plan: sit on fastballs early, attempt (without much success, to be fair) to be aggressive late, and hope that the favorable counts and fastball contact make up for any strikeout woes. It’s paid off so far, and pitchers aren’t helping their cause. They’ve thrown Happ the highest rate of secondary stuff he’s ever seen early in the count, right at the same time he’s stopped swinging early. Whoops!
You might think I’ve gotten the story wrong. If pitchers aren’t giving him anything to hit early, maybe his takes are an adaptation rather than an active choice. It doesn’t appear to be the case, however. I’ve said Happ is hunting fastballs early, but that’s not quite true. He’s mostly just taking everything on the first pitch, and even the second pitch. When Happ gets an in-zone fastball on 0-0, 1-0, or 0-1, he’s swinging only 42.9% of the time. That’s the lowest of his career by a large margin, and comically lower than league average (54.8%).
This is a lot of data and a lot of conflicting trends, but when you cut through it all, the answer is straightforward: Happ’s new approach at the plate isn’t sustainable. You can’t take as often as Happ does, take hittable pitches, and expect it to work out. You especially can’t do that when you struggle on two strikes as much as he does.
For now, Ian Happ is one of the best hitters in baseball, full stop. I worry, though, that when it stops working, things will fall apart quickly. Happ was an acceptable hitter even with his strikeout woes, but “acceptable hitter” isn’t what the Cubs are hoping for from him. If he’s going to make this work it will require some continued tinkering. Pitchers are eventually going to wise up and throw him more first-pitch strikes. He’ll need to counter with unbridled aggression to keep pitchers honest.
The good news is that Happ can truly deliver on that “keeping them honest” part. And there’s more good news — we already know that Happ is capable of adjusting, because he did it last year. Don’t go believing the fire-emoji start and the gaudy statistics — Happ isn’t capable of keeping those up. Do believe, though, that he’ll continue to make adjustments and try to stay one step ahead of pitchers. Happ has the skills to make it work; he’ll just have to keep varying his approach to keep pitchers guessing.
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