‘I knew that was in there’: How Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ broke out of a horrid slump to produce a torrid 6-week stretch
Every player encounters ups and downs over the course of a season, but few experience such extremes as Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ has endured this year.
When the front office opted to keep the lineup largely intact after last season’s quick postseason exit, the formula relied in part on Happ being a steady force in the leadoff spot. An awful April as the Cubs leadoff hitter saw him moved down the lineup by early May as manager David Ross tried to get the offense on track.
While the team has looked much different since the trade deadline, it took a little bit longer for Happ to finally get in a groove.
Over the last five weeks, Happ has been one of the hottest hitters in the majors. His 12 home runs since Aug. 13 are tied for the most in the National League in that span with Philadelphia Phillies MVP contender Bryce Harper and tied for third in the majors behind the Kansas City Royals’ Salvador Pérez (16) and the Toronto Blue Jays’ Marcus Semien (14). Happ has reached safely in 28 of his last 33 games, hitting .341 with eight doubles, a triple, 12 homers, 29 RBIs and a 1.111 OPS in that span.
He believes the biggest difference is being ready to hit from the first pitch in the at-bat.
“That’s part of the growing process, part of the learning and just trying to continue to work on that consistency and finding what’s working and being able to stick with that and work on that mentality,” Happ told the Tribune. “That’s the hardest part to do is maintaining that confidence and being able to find it or work through that. I know when I’m good, when I’m right, you’re seeing what it is right now.
“I knew that was in there. There was a lot of bad luck involved early, and so it was just that belief that over the course of 162 games, things are going to work themselves out.”
Happ’s recent production is in stark contrast to what he delivered the first four-plus months of the season. Through 106 games (368 plate appearances), Happ’s slash line sat at .176/.284/.321 and he had a 31.3% strikeout rate, a .272 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and 68 weighted runs created plus (wRC+).
In the 29 games (116 PAs) since, Happ owns a .364/.414/.766 line with a 25.0 K%, .488 wOBA and 208 wRC+.
Even during his early struggles, Happ didn’t shy away from questions about his disappointing play.
“That’s one thing I believe, especially in a market like this, is that you have an obligation to the fan base and to the team to go out there and answer the questions and be in front of media — it’s part of our job,” Happ said. “And so to be able to openly and honestly answer those questions only helps you get past it. It shows you’re the same human despite the results on the field, and that’s a big part of it is you can’t let the results on the field dictate who you are as a person because that’s two separate things.”
Happ’s hot streak has come predominantly as the No. 3 hitter. Ross showed confidence in him by putting him in a key spot in the batting order on a near-daily basis after the July 30 trade deadline, despite Happ hitting .183 at the time.
It took Happ until Aug. 27 to get above .200, where he has remained since the start of September. Ross admitted it wasn’t easy to continue batting Happ third, but his confidence in the switch hitter didn’t waver.
“We’ve run him out there consistently, I would say, as much as anybody outside of the guys that we traded away,” Ross said. “I just continued to say his track record says he’s going to be good at some point. ... Maybe if we were in a playoff race and it’s a little bit harder where we have to see it, and then I’m like, OK, there it is. And there were signs before he got hurt, like, OK, there’s Ian Happ.
“When you start to see it coming, I can trust that. Hitting’s hard, but I see a process and the ability to have a consistent good at-bat when he was going really bad. When he was getting multiple days off where I was trying to rest him to give him time to work on things, it was more of he’s broken right now — every player gets that way.”
The consistency of being back in the lineup every day and knowing he would be hitting in the No. 3 spot helped Happ overcome his prolonged slump. It goes beyond where he was written on the lineup card.
Hitting coach Anthony Iapoce sees Happ’s turnaround as a mix of aggressiveness and hitting the pitch he’s looking for earlier in the count. Happ is squaring up the balls he’s making contact with too.
When things aren’t going well, a hitter likely will possess a higher swing rate, Iapoce said, and also might try to take more pitches in an effort to draw walks as a way to help the team. Getting locked in and hunting for the pitch he wants has Happ on a roll.
“There’s nothing that initially changed in his routine or his practice,” Iapoce told the Tribune. “Just a few weeks ago, was throwing balls and we started seeing in practice getting certain pitches super consistently and him feeling confident over it. He’s riding it into games.”
Iapoce credited Happ for continuing to show up to the ballpark each day with a good attitude while remaining a great teammate.
“He never complained, never whined about why he wasn’t getting hits, just kept trying to figure it out,” Iapoce said. “And sometimes when it first starts happening, you could dig in too deep and spiral, and that wasn’t necessarily him. He still worked his butt off. ... It’s a tribute to him and probably circling back around for him right now with his success.”
There are big-picture implications in Happ salvaging his season. He will be in his second arbitration year in the offseason, barring significant changes in the collective bargaining agreement, which expires Dec. 1.
Happ, who turned 27 this month, earned $4.1 million in 2021 and should receive another raise despite his prolonged struggles. His age and salary make for an attractive combination for a team that is aiming to retool in the offseason and avoid another painful rebuild.
Happ appreciates the organization’s confidence in him through the tough stretches, but he isn’t trying to convince others of his value ahead of an important offseason for the Cubs’ future.
“It’s more about, for me, going into my offseason and my belief in myself and proving to myself that this is who I am as a player and what I’m capable of,” Happ said. “As soon as you start trying to prove something to other people or to organizations or to coaches, it gets really difficult to let yourself be free and let your ability flow.”