How much faith is too much when it comes to Cubs leadoff hitter Ian Happ?
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The last thing the Cubs want is another faith-vs.-reason debate when it comes to their leadoff hitter.
They invested a massive amount of faith in Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot last season, sticking with him well beyond the point that reason suggested was prudent. Actually, by the time manager Joe Maddon finally pulled Schwarber after six terrible weeks, reason was unconscious from repeatedly slamming its head against a wall.
It’s why everyone is a tad nervous about leadoff man Ian Happ’s rough start. He has struck out a National League-leading 17 times in seven games, which is ceiling-fan territory. He whiffed four times Thursday and three more times Saturday against the Brewers, though he did knock in two runs with a ninth-inning flare to left-center. He led off in both games. In the Cubs’ nine games, he has led off five times.
He was supposed to be in that spot again Monday against the Pirates, but the Cubs’ home opener was snowed out. Would it have been better for him to get back on the horse Monday? Or is it better that he’ll work in better weather conditions during the redo Tuesday at Wrigley Field? Wait, haven’t his early-season struggles mostly come in warm weather or ballparks with retractable roofs?
Do you see the knots of paralysis already being tightened?
It’s a touchy situation. It’s not Happ’s fault that the Cubs have been unable to find a serviceable replacement for Dexter Fowler since he left for the Cardinals after the 2016 championship season. It wasn’t Schwarber’s fault last season, either.
But the Cubs still have to have someone bat first in the first inning, and the preference is that it be the same person every game. So far, they’ve managed to put themselves in the same situation this season as last, elevating a young player into a very visible spot in the lineup. It means that when that player is struggling, as Happ is with a .179 batting average, the Cubs have to consider more than just how to get him out of his slump. They have to consider what pulling a 23-year-old from the top spot would do to his long-term confidence, just as they have to consider what leaving him there to struggle would do to his self-belief.
‘‘He’s quite a talent,’’ Maddon said of Happ. ‘‘And he’s going to be fine. You’ve just got to play through it. When you start making rash decisions too early, I think you can injure or destroy confidence, which I don’t want to do. Been through it enough. It’s early.’’
There weren’t many good things to take away from the Schwarber debacle, but an obvious lesson is not to stick with a slumping leadoff hitter for so long. Not when he’s hitting .204 on April 30, .198 on May 7 or .179 on May 14. Don’t expect this to be a monthlong pep rally for Happ if he continues to sputter. No one knows if Schwarber’s 2017 would have been better had Maddon given up on his experiment much earlier, but it’s hard to see how it could have been worse.
How much faith is too much faith? It’s a question the Cubs hoped they wouldn’t have to entertain with Happ, certainly not after only nine games. But people already are raising their hands to ask it. Without uttering a word, Maddon has responded with Albert Almora Jr. (three times) and Ben Zobrist (once) in the leadoff spot.
‘‘I just want to show some confidence in [Happ] right now,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘What I think is going on is a little bit abnormal in a sense. We’ve seen him swing and miss in the past. He’s a very streaky guy. I think once he gets a feel for it, you’re going to start seeing the ball get hit like he’s [accustomed to]. He hits the ball really hard when he’s on.’’
As we saw with Schwarber, having too much belief in a player can become as much a disservice to him as having too little. When you’re batting seventh or eighth, it’s easier to deal with a slump and easier to come out of one. It’s not so easy when you’re leading off and everyone is analyzing your every facial tic.
‘‘They’re talked to during these moments,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘You talk them off a ledge a couple of times, but you also have to show faith in them and not run away from them so quickly.’’
Happ hit a home run on the first pitch of the season. That came in Miami, and he immediately was greeted as the answer to the Cubs’ leadoff prayers. So in a twisted sense, it probably makes sense that his mini-slump is being viewed with emotions normally found in End Times literature.
Nine games into the season, somewhere in between the two extremes might be more appropriate.
And if Happ the leadoff hitter still is hitting poorly after another nine games? Then the Apocalypse will be upon us.
Legendary Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called ‘‘The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.’’ Don’t miss their gritty, no-holds-barred takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play or via RSS feed.