A resurgent Ian Happ has been a key factor in the Cubs’ unexpected dominance in the first half of this shortened season. Through 26 games Happ has an OPS over 1.000 and he has been among the best hitters in baseball in 2020. Happ has shown flashes in the past but this level of production is a dramatic turn-around from 18 months ago.
Happ was left off the opening day roster at the start of 2019 after a disappointing 2018 season and he did not return to the majors until late July. Happ had a stellar .898 OPS in the two months he played in 2019 and he has carried that form into this year. Over this season and last Happ has now had over 250 plate appearances and has been performing at an all-star level.
Perhaps this level of production should not be a surprise as Happ was a top 10 pick and was always a highly rated prospect. However, in 2018 Happ had a strikeout rate of 36%. This mark was among the worst in the league. Of course, many of the best players strikeout at a very high rate but Happ’s rate was even higher than Stanton, Judge and Gallo. In order to be a valuable player with a strikeout rate that high you would need to hit for a huge amount of power.
The key to Ian Happ’s recent success has been more consistent contact, particularly on fastballs. His strikeout percentage since returning to the Cubs last July has been around 25% which is still high (top 22%) but is a vast improvement even on his impressive rookie season (top 4%). His Whiff rate on fastballs has fallen from 38.3% in 2018 to 27.6% this year. The result has been a massive .735 slugging percentage on fastballs.
Since Happ’s rookie breakout he has changed from being an all or nothing hitter to having a more balanced approach. Often when hitters make big jumps forward it is from hitting the ball in the air more but for Happ it has been the opposite he currently has the lowest average launch angle of his career and has seen a slight increase in his ground ball percentage since his Cubs return. With 17 home runs in just over 250 plate appearances it appears that his new approach has not sacrificed his natural power.
By replacing some strikeouts with singles and doubles Happ has become one of the Cubs’ best hitters and he is a great example of how talented young players can improve over time. Ian Happ’s drastic improvement shows that players are not defined by their first couple of years and that patience with highly rated prospects can pay off.