With two years of major league experience, Ian Happ still hasn’t reached his full potential.
The Cubs’ versatile outfielder/second baseman has been an above average hitter, compiling a 109 wRC+ over 875 plate appearances. He’s had periods of being unstoppable, but he’s had just as many of being completely and utterly stoppable.
One of those latter stretches came at the beginning of the 2018 season. Through the end of April, Happ had struck out in 44 percent of his plate appearances. He needed to make an adjustment, and what he did was stop swinging as often.
His patience became one of his more remarkable strengths. Happ ended the season with a 15.2 percent walk rate, and that’s in no small part because Happ stopped chasing outside of the strike zone. Happ ended up only swinging at 24.7 percent of would-be balls last season.
Happ’s 42.8 percent swing rate was a tick below the league average of 46.6. With power potential and an increasingly patient approach, it’s not hard to see him breaking out.
The problem is that when Happ does swing, he has serious issues making contact.
Below is a scatter chart of every hitter who had 300 plate appearances in 2018 and who swing rates lower than league average:
No other patient hitter made less contact than Happ. Only Aaron Judge came close, but Happ’s quality of contact is far weaker than Judge’s. It’s unusual to see a hitter who can draw a walk at an above average rate but also strike out over one-third of the time.
Again, Judge comes close to Happ, as does Joey Gallo who also makes much better contact than Happ. Otherwise, Happ is in a lonely part of the scatter chart.
What’s even stranger is that most of Happ’s whiffs come against the easiest pitches to barrel. Happ swings and misses at 37 percent of all hard pitches he sees which Brooks Baseball classifies as “a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss.” I’ll be honest, I didn’t know there was a threshold above “extreme likelihood to swing and miss” before looking at Happ’s hitter card.
extremely disastrously vulnerable against high heat. He seldom makes contact on fastballs in the upper two-thirds of the zone.
What’s worse is that he tends to extend the zone on fastballs above the letters.
He’s making it easy for pitchers to approach him. All they have to do is throw high fastballs and he’s probably going to swing and miss. Just don’t miss low because he can crush the ball. Even if he annihilates fastballs at the belt, he hasn’t been able to do anything against the high fastballs he does catch up to.
Happ also has an extreme tendency to swing and miss at breaking balls and offspeed pitches, but the good news is that he can hit just about anything. He struggles a bit with sliders, but that’s the only common pitch that he doesn’t slug .400+ against.
Happ is already a good hitter, but he’s far from a perfect one. If he can better defend the top half of the zone against high heat, he’d become a truly dangerous presence at the plate.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles.