At 22 years of age, Ian Happ flashed the type of potential that led the Chicago Cubs to draft him with the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft. Across 115 games, the youngster posted a solid .514 slugging percentage, helping to prop-up an .842 OPS. Happ’s above average power number was produced by 24 home runs and 17 doubles as the first year player finished eighth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Things can change rather quickly in the game of baseball, and Happ has not been immune to the ups and downs of success and failure. A top-ten finish in the Rookie of the Year voting kicked the youngster’s career off on a high note, one that fans and Cubs’ brass alike assumed would only continue to trend in a positive direction.
Instead, the exact opposite has happened this season. Currently, in mid-September, Happ is slashing .229/.348/.409. While his alarmingly low batting average doesn’t carry much weight (considering his lackluster .253 mark in 2017), the real concerning factor is Happ’s power numbers. Despite his OBP being 20 points higher this season compared to last, the switch-hitting utility man’s slugging percentage is down more than 100 points. That has led to a less-than-stellar .757 OPS and 98 OPS-plus.
A look into Happ’s more advanced numbers do not tell a pretty tale either. Even though his walk rate as kicked up more than five percentage points since 2017, so has his strikeout rate, a number that currently sits at 36.2 percent. With that lofty number comes a decrease in just about everything else. After posting an extremely impressive .261 ISO as a rookie, Happ has logged just a .180 mark this season while currently sitting on 15 long-balls. Additionally, the 24-year-old’s wRC+ has dipped 10 points from last season and stands at 103, still above league average, but a number that shows a step back offensively from 2017.
With that being said, amid every slump, there are usually one or two positive signs that suggests the player can and will turn it around. Happ has more than a few positive signs that tells Cubs’ brass a breakout should be coming at any moment.
Always Think Positive
Immediately, when a player is not producing power numbers like he was in the past, people always assume they are not striking the ball as well. For Happ, that could not be further from the truth.
Last season, Happ enjoyed a solid offensive campaign as highlighted above. The youngster did that by producing a hard contact rate of 32.8 percent and a hard hit rate of 39.8 percent. That second number, the percentage of times the ball actually got through for a hit, was more than five percent better than league average.
This season, those numbers clock in at 39.8 and 40.8 percent respectively while Happ’s soft contact rate has dropped to 17.1 percent this season after sitting at 18.7 percent last year. Accompanying Happ’s uptick in hard contact has been less of a reliance on pulling the baseball. Happ’s center and opposite field contact percentages have both increased by healthy margins this season compared to last, leading to a more than seven percent drop in his pull rate.
It’s always nice to see a switch-hitter — and any hitter for that matter — not rely so much on pulling the baseball as it opens up the entire field of play and takes the defensive shift out of the equation.
Behind Happ’s increase in hard contact — as one might imagine — has been an uptick in exit velocity. According to Statcast, Happ’s average exit velocity is up to 90 MPH after sitting at 88.1 MPH last season. While that has actually led to a drop in Happ’s barrel percentage (from 13.3 percent in 2017 to 12.3 percent this season), the youngster is still well above the league average number for that statistic.
So, Happ is striking the ball as good, if not better, than he was last season. If that’s the case, what is the problem and why can’t the youngster seem to shake this slump that has all but ruined his Sophomore season?
The answer seems to boil down to launch angle. This article suggests the ideal launch angle for hitting home runs (i.e. producing more runs and becoming more of a force on offense) is between 21 and 36 degrees. With that being said, Happ currently owns an average launch angle of 14 degrees. While that means Happ has obviously hit balls with a launch angle greater than that, it also means the majority of balls off his bat have come with a low angle.
This image does a good job to show the lack of hits Happ has with a launch angle greater than 20 degrees. As shown, the majority of his knocks this season have come below that mark, meaning many ground balls and line drives, a statement backed up by Happ’s increase in both of those categories and decrease in fly ball rate this year compared to last.
To further back up the claim that Happ’s launch angle is the root of his slump, I performed a Statcast search of the base hits off the youngster’s bat that have been hit with a launch angle of 19 degrees or less. Of Happ’s 84 hits this season, 48 have come off the bat at an angle less than 20 degrees, a than-less-ideal launch angle. While Happ is hitting .410 on those balls, he owns just an .077 ISO with an average launch angle of negative-3.7 degrees.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Happ has 31 batted balls of launch angles greater than 39 degrees. On those, Happ owns a slugging percentage of .065 and a batting average to match.
Fix Your Launch Angle, Fix Your Season
Of Ian Happ’s 211 batted balls this season, only 51 have come in the ideal launch angle category of 21 to 36 degrees. That equates to just 24 percent, compared to the 55 percent (117) of batted balls that have been hit below 20 degrees.
Happ’s success on those balls is what’s driving his statistics up until this point. However, Happ, or anyone for that matter, cannot rely on hitting the ball on the ground or right at an infielder to be successful. Instead, some increased launch angle well need to be introduced into Happ’s game if he hopes to turn his season around.
Right now, the Cubs hold a 2.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers while owning the league’s third worst wRC+ (72) since the beginning of September. While the Cubs have plenty of offensive weapons, it would be nice to get Happ going offensively before the postseason hits. If the youngster continues the way he’s going (.180 batting average since the All-Star break), he may get left off the postseason roster, a situation that would not be ideal for either party.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Athletic
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