John has already briefly profiled the newest Chicago Cub, Ian Happ. In this article, I am going to take a longer-range look at Happ’s game, using both numbers and scouting to evaluate the rookie’s major-league potential.
A polished player coming out of the University of Cincinnati, Happ has rapidly climbed the minor league ladder, jumping from Low-A in 2015 to the Majors in 2017.
The 22-year-old switch-hitter consistently struggles upon reaching a new level, before quickly adjusting. After posting an impressive .821 OPS in short-season ball in his first season as a professional, Happ limped to a .241 batting average and .763 OPS in the Arizona Fall league that year.
He came into the next spring prepared for advance pitching, batting .296 with an .885 OPS in 240 High-A at-bats. However, upon reaching Double-A Tennessee midway through 2016, the Pittsburgh native’s batting average dropped to .254 and his OPS slipped under .700.
This year, in continuing with his career trend, Ian has bounced back from last season’s struggles and has, in fact, experienced something of a breakout 2017. Through 26 games, all with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, the second baseman/outfielder has mashed to a .298/.362/.615 line, with 15 extra-base-hits. He currently owns an eye-popping .317 ISO, .412 wOBA, and 149 wRC+. Such a strong start to the season fast-tracked Happ to the big leagues, as John had the youngster slated for a 2018 ETA in his Cubs Top 20 Prospects piece.
Happ’s improved batting average (.298 this year to a career .275) can largely be attributed to a new, shortened swing.
In the 2016 Arizona Fall League, Happ began his stance with his bat resting on his shoulder and his legs, slightly bent, standing shoulder-width apart in a powerful position. When the pitcher delivered, Happ would bring his bat to a sixty degree angle, slightly lift his front leg, then separate as the pitch came in, bring the bat down to forty-five degrees, open his front foot, and turns his hips mightily as he released toward contact.
This swing worked well if the ball was down in the zone, where Happ’s low bat angle and strong lower body converged. However, it also left Happ susceptible to breaking pitches and high fastballs, as the 22-year-old’s long swing and early lower body commitment prevented him from adjusting to off-speed or moving his hands from belt-height to an elevated position.
However, with some subtle improvements, Happ has dramatically decreased his swing path this year. He now starts with the bat lifted off his shoulder, as opposed to resting it there. Then, he lifts his front leg higher than he did last season, which helps him stay upright and balanced. He proceeds to move his bat to the hitting zone as the ball approaches and engage his legs at the end of the swing.
This new approach enables Happ to recognize the pitch before committing, since he does not power his lower body through the zone until the last possible moment. The switch-hitter still has an upper-cut and will always be a low-ball, fastball hitter. But these small improvements that have made the Ian more fluid, more in-control, and taller are, I believe, driving his improved performance this year.
Present Contact Value: 45-50
Future Value: 55
Happ’s ability to hit home runs elevates his status as a prospect. At 6-0, 205 pounds, the 2015 1st round pick has the look of a lean slugger. His numbers have held up to that bill, with his recent nine home run output in just 26 games constituting peak production.
As noted in the section above, Happ’s powerful lower body and upper-cut lend well to the long ball. There is not much room for Happ’s body to fill out, but that’s okay because he already exhibits a strong present power tool. Right now, I think the rookie has 20 home run ability, but I could see him blast 25 or 30 bombs in his age-26 to age-28 seasons.
Present Value: 50
Future Value: 60
Happ has good arm strength and showcases solid quickness on the base paths (10 steals in 2016, 15 in 2015); however, those skills have yet to translate to the defensive aspect of his game. Ian particularly struggles at second base, where he has made seventeen errors in 108 games as a professional. The Cubs are trying to refine his outfield ability and he does seem a better fit in the corner outfield than at second.
Having played second, center, left, and right extensively throughout his short pro career, Happ may be a victim of the Wilmer Flores syndrome, which results in a lack of defensive improvement when a young player is not given the opportunity to master one position. If the Cubs commit the youngster to the outfield, I have confidence Ian can be a serviceable defender, with his speed and arm strength. However, given his body-type and somewhat-limited athleticism, Happ will have to work to ensure that he remains valuable for National League teams over the course of his career.
Present Value: 35-40
Future Value: 45
I think Happ will struggle in his first assignment to the major leagues, as he typically struggles upon promotion to a new level. However, that does not mean that the Cubs did not make the right decision in promoting him. The 22-year-old carries a big league-ready body and tantalizing Triple-A numbers.
He should provide a solid offensive bat to an underwhelming Cubs offense and will either hold his own in the field or return to the minors to solidify his defense. Happ’s improved ability to adjust to pitches outside his comfort zone (breaking pitches and high-ball fastballs) will serve him well as he faces the best pitchers in the world.
Ultimately, I believe Happ will have a successful major-league career as a solid, if not spectacular, starting caliber player. He may make an All-Star game or two, bat between .250 and .270 for his career, and could post a few thirty-plus home run seasons.
Best-case scenario: Shawn Green
Statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and MLBFarm