The Ian Happ leadoff experiment might not be officially over, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon is backing off the young switch-hitter as a committed leadoff option while Happ works with hitting coach Chili Davis on his swing, which has produced one of the highest strikeout rates in the league.
Maddon, who used Albert Almora Jr. in the leadoff spot against Cardinals right-hander Luke Weaver on Thursday, said he’ll be more selective with where and when he uses Happ to lead off — at least until further notice.
“My biggest concern — [not] concern — my main thought is to talk to Chili every day, and to Ian, and see how they’re feeling about things,” said Maddon, who opened the season with Happ as his leadoff man against righties. “If I’m hearing it from both of them that they feel really strongly about what’s going on, then I want to start pushing it again.”
Happ has 25 strikeouts in 53 plate appearances this season — a 47.2 percent strikeout rate. He has 10 hits and four walks for a .264 on-base percentage.
“But, gosh, I really like the way this guy is, and he’ll work through it,” Maddon said of the left-side hitting issue. “I like the plan that Chili has set forth for him.”
As the Cubs’ leadoff question continued to play out this week, across the field was a reminder of how good they had it before last season. They used to be able to pencil in Dexter Fowler — now with the Cardinals — every day, getting a .367 on-base percentage over two seasons, both of which resulted in deep playoff runs.
“It was nice to have him there to do that,” Maddon said. “And beyond that, he’s such a wonderful teammate. In the clubhouse, he’s outstanding.”
Not that Fowler would be the answer for the Cubs now. He entered Thursday hitting worse than Happ (.190), with a .228 OBP.
But the Cubs haven’t come close to finding any semblance of a leadoff answer since Fowler left. The failed Kyle Schwarber experiment last year resulted in 11 players being used in the role.
Fowler, who played on two one-year deals with the Cubs before signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Cardinals, is well aware of the leadoff travails of his old pals. But he doesn’t spend much time thinking about how life for them — or him — might be different if he’d had a chance to stay.
“That boat has passed,” he said. “I got a good opportunity over here, and I’m happy.”
Meanwhile, the Cubs have used three different leadoff hitters this season. And counting?
“We have not had that stability since [Fowler’s been] gone,” Maddon said. “But we’ll figure it out.”