Ian Happ channels Dexter Fowler in spring prep for role in Cubs leadoff rotation

MESA, Ariz. — If Ian Happ and the Cubs have their way this season they’ll have Dexter Fowler back in the leadoff spot, and all will be right with their hitting world.

Well, at least some of Fowler. Echoes of Fowler maybe.

“The guys that are really great leadoff hitters, they’re confident,” Happ said, “and they understand that if they’re going to have a good day and help the team, they’ve got to get on base twice.

Why Cubs think Morrow can be their next Chapman or Davis
Almora Jr., Navarro homer for Cubs to back Quintana vs Indians

Happ on Monday (3-for-4 with a homer).

“That’s why Dexter was so good. And I’ve heard him say that before, and I’ve heard people say that was always his thought: that he was just always trying to get on base twice a game, whether it was two walks, hit and a walk, couple hits, whatever. That’s why he was so good at it, because that was his thought process and he did it a lot of the time.”

Happ might be good at it, too. At least that’s what the Cubs think.

Their 2014 first-round draft pick showed power and an on-base knack — his on-base percentage was 75 points higher than his .253 batting average — in 115 games as a rookie last season.

Happ, who is a switch hitter like Fowler and has been playing center field this spring, looks increasingly comfortable in six games batting leadoff. He was there again Wednesday night in the Cubs’ exhibition game against the Indians.

“I did get a chance to talk to Dex last year when [the Cardinals] were in Chicago,” Happ said of the ex-Cub leadoff man, who ignited the Cubs’ lineup for two seasons that included deep postseason runs.

“It wasn’t specifically about that at the time,” said Happ, who did seek out others close to Fowler to learn more about his approach. “Any great leadoff hitter — Dex is one of them — you can learn from and just try to figure out what different guys’ thoughts are. And their different processes, because everybody has something a little bit different, and it can click with anyone.”

It is barely a week into March, so take it for what it’s worth, but two years after keeping his head down and quietly listening to what the veteran Fowler had to say, Happ is ready to try to be whatever the Cubs need him to be as a confident, promising hitter in his first full year in the majors.

Fowler had a .393 on-base percentage during the Cubs’ 2016 championship season.

“It’s just Ian. He could be hitting ninth right now and he could be doing the same thing,” said manager Joe Maddon, who is using Happ only in the leadoff spot this spring. “He’s just motivated.

“He’s done a great job there because he’s hit home runs. But what you’re looking at is getting on base, seeing pitches. That’s really the more attractive thing he’s been doing. Even some of his outs have been hard.”

Heading into the first night game of the spring, Happ was 8-for-17 (.471 average) with four homers and a walk (.500 on-base percentage) in six games.

The three other hitters Maddon has used in the leadoff spot this spring are 1-for-19 without a walk.

Happ won’t be an everyday center fielder or leadoff hitter the way Fowler was. Maddon plans a leadoff rotation based on left-right splits, defensive alignment and specific pitcher matchups. The Cubs want used 11 different players hitting at the top in 2017; they want to avoid that this season.

“I’m really comfortable,” said Happ, who is finding a certain routine in the leadoff spot. “The biggest difference in the leadoff role is that you’re going to get more at-bats. You’re going to get five every day. The last couple games I’ve gotten four [playing half the innings]. I’ll just continue to push toward that, getting my fourth and then getting my fifth at-bat. And then when you get into the season you’re going to get five every day.

“The guys that are the best at it are the ones that are really confident in themselves, believe in themselves and know they can do it.”

Wednesday’s lineup vs. Clevland’s Trevor Bauer:

  • DH Ian Happ
  • LF Kyle Schwarber
  • CF Albert Almora Jr.
  • 3B Tommy La Stella
  • C Chris Gimenez
  • 1B Efren Navarro
  • RF Peter Bourjos
  • 2B Ryan Court
  • SS Mike Freeman
  • (LHP Jose Quintana)

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com