Chicago Cubs: The numbers behind Ian Happ’s breakout

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Ian Happ has become one of the best hitters in the Chicago Cubs’ lineup.

After bursting onto the scene with the Chicago Cubs in 2017, Ian Happ looked to be the next star in the making in Wrigleyville.

Those grand ideas were put on pause after an attempt to make Happ the everyday leadoff hitter in 2018 led to disastrous results. Happ’s 2019 season didn’t get off to a much better start. He was a surprise demotion to AAA just days before the regular season began.

Now, three years after his initial debut, Happ is once again turning heads.

The Cubs are off to an MLB best 13-3 start, and Happ’s been the team’s top hitter just over a quarter of the way through the shortened 2020 season. Through those first 16 games, Happ’s slashing .326/.456/.609 with three home runs and eight RBIs.

Those numbers stand out not only as the best on the team (aside from Jason Kipnis who has less than half the plate appearances), but also as one of the best across all of MLB. Happ’s 1.065 OPS is 10th best in the majors, and for those of you more inclined to advanced stats, his .445 wOBA and 186 wRC+ rank 10th and 12th, respectively.

Happ’s blazing hot start has earned him the role of the Cubs’ everyday center fielder, plus a recent jump in the batting order.

Seeing a player make such huge strides at the plate always raises two questions. First, what is he doing differently? And second, is his performance sustainable? Let’s dive in.

The biggest thing Happ is doing differently this year is being more patient. He’s cut his swing rate considerably, offering at just 37.2 percent of pitches he’s seen – that’s nearly a 10 percent drop from his career swing rate of 46.2 percent.

Swinging less means he’s been able to be much more selective. He’s swinging at fewer balls outside of the strike zone, but he’s also swinging at fewer strikes as well. Because of that, Happ’s really narrowed his swing selection down to pitches that are located where he can drive the baseball.

Take a look at his swing percentage zone chart with 2019 on the left and 2020 on the right.

Just look at how much better Happ’s been able to lay off those low pitches and focus his swings on balls in the middle and upper parts of the strike zone.

Being much more patient at the dish has paid off for Happ. His walk rate is up nearly 10 percent, his strikeout rate is at a career-low, and when he’s made contact this year, he’s getting much better results.

According to Statcast data, his average hard-hit rate this year is 54.5 percent, almost 14 percentage points higher than his career average. Additionally, he’s increased his average exit velocity and his barrel percentage.

Happ’s also doing a much better job of spreading out those hits. Prior to 2020, Happ pulled 39.6 percent of his career base hits. This year that number is down to 30.3 percent. He’s hitting the baseball up the middle a whole lot more this season as well. Happ’s rate of 57.6 percent of hits going back up the middle is over 20 points higher than his career average.

Now that we know what Happ’s done to change his approach at the plate, is his early-season success sustainable?

Looking at Happ’s .400 BABIP is an immediate red flag, but diving deeper into his numbers makes it seem like his performance isn’t just a fluke.

Happ’s been great, but he hasn’t vastly over-produced based on the way he’s hitting the ball. Statcast gives him an expected batting average of .312. He’s currently hitting .326. Statcast gives him an expected slugging percentage of .661. He’s currently slugging .609. Statcast gives him an expected wOBA of .451. Right now his wOBA is .438.

Those expected batting average, slugging percentage, and wOBA numbers put him in the 88th, 92nd, and 96th percentile of all MLB players.

Based on all of those Statcast numbers, not only is Happ’s breakout sustainable, you could make an argument that he’s actually underperforming.

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Three years after his MLB debut, Cubs fans can once again feel great excitement about Happ’s future. His and the Cubs’ incredible start to the weird 2020 season has catapulted the Cubs back into World Series contender discussion.