How Ian Happ has helped ‘stabilize’ Cubs amid roller-coaster season
Entering the Cubs’ game Friday against the Cardinals, Happ ranked third among National League outfielders in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.
ST. LOUIS — Standing on second base, outfielder Ian Happ clapped once, an understated celebration of his RBI double in the fifth inning of the Cubs’ 3-0 victory Friday in the series opener against the Cardinals.
Happ had just extended his hitting streak to seven games, mostly against division rivals. But his low-key demeanor in some ways mirrors what he has meant to the Cubs in a roller-coaster start to the season.
‘‘He’s learned a lot and held down the ability to just stabilize us in the middle of that batting order,’’ manager David Ross said this week. ‘‘And that’s been a real positive.’’
Need more quantifiable proof of Happ’s value to the Cubs this season? Entering play Friday, he ranked third among National League outfielders in wins above replacement (2.2), according to FanGraphs.
His consistency, however, hasn’t translated directly into All-Star votes. When Major League Baseball released its first All-Star voting update this week, Happ was 17th among NL outfielders.
‘‘He has been, definitely, one of our all-stars,’’ Ross said Friday.
Happ doesn’t have any fancy explanation for his breakout season. Entering the game against the Cardinals, he was batting .289 with a .387 on-base percentage, putting him on pace for career highs in both categories.
‘‘I think it’s playing every day,’’ Happ said in a conversation with the Sun-Times.
His success has carried over from late last season, when he slashed .317/.405/.615 in September and October.
‘‘ was the last time seeing all these [pitchers] again,’’ Happ said. ‘‘So doing that, to go through it again with some familiarity, all those things can add up.’’
Remember, the Cubs sent the switch-hitting Happ down to Triple-A Iowa for the first half of the 2019 season. And in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, MLB implemented a regional schedule.
So Happ entered this season with a veteran mindset but also with the kind of base knowledge of opposing pitchers that he hadn’t been able to take advantage of before in his career.
Still, Happ wasn’t guaranteed the kind of playing time against left-handed pitchers that he has enjoyed lately.
‘‘The fact of how he’s hit with power to all fields and spraying the ball around — and it’s been a really consistent bat from both sides of the plate — that’s something that he proved,’’ Ross said. ‘‘It’s not anything I’ve done. He’s proved that and earned the fact that he’s in there against righties and lefties.’’
Early in the season, Ross often would bat Happ eighth against left-handed starters to cut down on the number of at-bats he would take against them.
But against Pirates southpaw Jose Quintana on Thursday, Happ batted third.
‘‘I think some of the ball flights for me are things that I haven’t done in a while,’’ Happ said of his right-handed swing. ‘‘So some of that opposite-field stuff is coming back. There’s definitely some things that I haven’t felt in a while that start to become more familiar, which is nice. But I never had a doubt that I could do it, if given the opportunity.’’
The success he featured against lefties early in the season has remained steady. And his splits, though with fewer plate appearances against left-handers, actually favor his traditionally weaker side. He’s hitting .359 with a .528 slugging percentage in 53 at-bats against southpaws.
‘‘He’s still going out there [and] having his professional at-bat,’’ Ross said, ‘‘whether we’re in first place and chasing the championship or where we’re at right now.’’