We’ve officially hit the off-season! Congratulations to the Los Angeles Dodgers on their first World Series title in 32 years! Even if you weren’t a Dodgers fan, I think many of us were happy to see Clayton Kershaw finally win a ring. On the Rays side, with how they play baseball they will definitely be back. Both teams are truly well run organizations that should continue being contenders going forward. Back to the purpose of this article. I want to continue digging into positive and negative aspects of certain players’ 2020 seasons. In a season in which a global pandemic was occurring and we only had 60 games of data, it is incredibly hard to make assessments about players and their performances, and that includes Ian Happ, who I’ll be looking at in this article.
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As with many sports, there are many factors that come into play when looking at how a player performed during a particular season. Players may be statistically slow starters, not play well in certain weather, have problems with certain teams that they continued to face in the re-alignment, and more. What a player has done in their career before 2020 needs to be taken into consideration for these exact reasons.
This offseason, I’ll be doing a series of articles looking at what went right, what went wrong, and the overall 2021 outlook for certain players. I can only take into account the data that has been given and use that to best assess what to expect from them next season. This should be fun! Let’s dive into our next player in this series: Ian Happ.
What Went Right for Ian Happ in 2020
Improvement versus the Fastball
The difference for Ian Happ versus the fastball from 2019 to 2020 is staggering. As a major leaguer, this will be the pitch you’re most likely to see, and let’s just say Mr. Happ “saw” it well. Happ went from batting .171 while slugging .402 against this pitch in 2019, to .305 and .610 in 2020. His expected stats were not far off from the actual numbers too which helps us know that these changes in his approach were for real.
One other aspect that helped Happ against the fastball was his dramatic decrease in his launch angle. Happ cut his launch angle versus the fastball in half! He went from 22 degrees to 11 degrees. This helped increase his exit velocity AND helped him cut 8% off of his under percentage (popping the ball up) to help create a nice solid line-drive swing.
Distanced himself for the Center Field Job
Jason Heyward still has 3 years remaining on his contract and plays elite defense in right field. He’s not going anywhere. Kyle Schwarber can be one of the most dangerous power bats in the game and the team needs his bat in the lineup, so he will be plugged in at left field. That leaves center field as the only open spot in the outfield. As of right now, there are two other players currently on the roster that can be plugged into center field.
One is Albert Almora (could be non-tendered) who hit .167 with 0 HR’s in 28 games and led to a demotion to the alternative training site. The other is an infielder by trade, Nico Hoerner, who hit .222 in 2020 but also 0 HRs in 48 games. He is a contact hitter but his strikeout rate went way up in 2020. Unless the Cubs sign George Springer or another free agent, this will be Happ’s job to lose and he should get the ample at-bats.
Power remains with bettering K and Walk rates
Ian Happ showed the power he was capable of when he first showed up in the Majors in 2017. During those 115 games, he hit 24 bombs but added a woeful 129 strikeouts. The next year was a big step back in both directions for Happ as he hit just 15 home runs in 142 games and struck out a near league-leading 167 times. The last two years have the return of the plus power for Happ, as he hit 11 and 12 HR’s each of the last two years in 58 and 57 games respectfully. That is a 30-35 HR pace in a full season.
Where Ian Happ has really made strides in the last two years is his K rate while maintaining a decent walk rate. in 2018, Happ struck out an insane 36% of his at-bats, which eventually carried over to the first half of 2019 and led to a demotion. Since then, Happ changed his approach dramatically and cut down his strikeout rate to sub 28% each of the last two seasons and had the second-highest walk rate of his career at 13% in 2020. This is a big sign of a hitter seeing the ball a lot better and choosing better times when to swing the bat. This plays well into his first pitch swing percentage being 8% lower than his previous career-low and his chase percentage being the second-lowest of his career.
What Went Wrong
Sounds like a normal day for you and me right? Well, this happened to be the game that Happ took a foul ball off his eye. Ouch. Happ did not play on September 4 and looked good hitting 2 HRs on September 5. However, things went far south after that and looking further into the data, could have contributed to his horrible end to the season.
According to Michael Cerami of BleacherNation.com, These were Happ’s splits before and after September 7th:
Before (163 PA): .304/.420/.659 with a 182 wRC+, 16% walk rate, and 23.9% K rate
After: (68 PA): .159/.221/.175 with a 11 wRC+, 5.9% walk rate, and 35.3% K rate
Cerami also adds that during this time, “Happ’s 91.7 MPH (22nd in MLB) to 89.6 MPH (70th). His line-drive rate went from 25.0% (36th) to 15.4% (146th). His ground ball rate also jumped from 40.6% to 56.4% and his infield fly ball rate jumped from 6.1% to 9.1%.”
This correlation also led to the higher whiff rates, lower walk rates, and overall the Ian Happ we saw more of in 2018 and the first half of 2019. When looking at Happ’s statcast profile and Fangraphs page, this ending to the season led him to start to chase more outside the zone and lower his contact percentage. We as analysts have to wonder if his vision after the incident severely affected his ability to see pitches over his last 68 PAs. I for one think it had a major impact.
Hit into more Groundballs
While Ian Happ has made a lot of positive changes in his overall hitting profile, there is one trend that seems to be going in the wrong direction. In today’s day and age, it is encouraged for hitters to put the ball in the air as much as possible. This will help eliminate the double play, have the chance for an extra-base hit, or can help in a pinch with a sacrifice fly. Happ has seen his groundball percentage creep up each of the last 3 seasons from 40.5% in 2018, 43.1% in 2019, and now 47.1% in 2020. That means almost half of Happ’s at-bats are resulting in the ball being put on the ground. Not great for a hitter that relies on power like Happ.
At the same time, Happ also saw his flyball rate drop 11% this year! This was after it was a career-best nearly 30% in 2019. If Happ has his flyball rate drop this much and stay this low all season, that could be dangerous for him reaching the 30 HR plateau that we expect him to get to.
Trouble with Offspeed and Breaking Pitches
If I’m going to talk about how well Ian Happ improved against the fastball, I have to also talk about how much he regressed versus everything else. In 2020, Happ saw a 7% uptick and a 2% uptick roughly in breaking balls and offspeed pitches. This was all in just about the same amount of games. His .337 and .305 xBA versus the offspeed and breaking pitches in 2019 shot WAY down to .196 and .262 respectfully. This also tied into his drastic decrease in slugging percentage off these pitches as well.
With the minor bump in other pitches that weren’t fastballs this season, it leaves me a little worried about what a full season of this could bring in 2021. His expected 2019 stats versus these pitches showed some regression was coming from his actual 2019 hitting data but not to this extent. The offspeed drop was the most dramatic as stated above (which also contributed a 50% whiff rate!) and this leads to confusion of how this could have changed so much from one year to the other. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make assumptions on this without seeing how this would have played out with more data. Either way, Happ will have to correct this in 2021.
Outlook for 2021
Ian Happ will be 26 years old at the start of next season and should still be in the prime of his career. Happ should continue to get plenty of at bat’s as mentioned before for 2021, as the club has consensus top-100 prospect OF Brennen Davis at Class-A South Bend a few years away.
In a shortened season, Happ turned in career highs in wRC+, hard-hit rate, on-base percentage, and OPS+. He also continued to show the improved strikeout rate that we saw in the ladder half of 2019. This was the reason Happ was consistently hitting in the upper half of the lineup (Sometimes lead-off and other times in the middle of the order) throughout most of the season.
In the 2EarlyMocks, he is the 41st outfielder off the board at about a 143 ADP. In a 15-team league, that means he is roughly a 10th round pick. For an outfielder that can hit .250 and give you 30 bombs, while providing the occasional steal, that is not bad value. If you are getting the pre-wall Happ, this is a great mid-round outfielder to acquire. As long as he continues to show improved plate discipline while hitting bombs, this is a good OF3 and a great OF4 when drafting.
If you enjoyed this deep dive, be sure to check out all of our offseason content at Fantrax HQ as we help prepare you to win your leagues in 2021.
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Great analysis David. Just discovered this site and it warms the off-season.
Thanks for reading Frank!