It wasn’t all that long ago that the Cubs were able to look at their outfield situation as an embarrassment of riches. On May 17, 2017, Ian Happ joined a roster that already featured three outfielders under the age of twenty-eight—Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, and Albert Almora. Fast forward to 2019, and the riches aren’t so, well, rich. Schwarber (to no one’s surprise) is still a DH stuck in the National League. Heyward is an elite defender enjoying a resurgent offensive season, but he has spent much of the season forced off his gold glove position in right field, starting 34 games in center in this campaign to date.
Why has he been needed in center field where he is not nearly as effective? Simply put, Almora and Happ have failed to live up to their potential.
Almora is in the middle of what can only be described as a brutal offensive slump dating back to the middle of last season. As Sahedev Sharma pointed out, over the past year, Almora has been one of the worst hitters in baseball.
Lowest wRC+ over the past calendar year, minimum 400 PAs:
1. Billy Hamilton (57)
2. Chris Davis (58)
3. Albert Almora (62)
4. Kyle Seager (67)
5. Joe Panik (68)
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) July 20, 2019
His struggles have hurt the Cubs in many ways, not the least of which has been forcing Joe Maddon to play Heyward in center field a career-high 274.1 innings at the time of this publication. The blame for this cannot, of course, be laid solely at the feet of Almora. Ian Happ has been, quite literally, MIA.
After a disappointing end to the 2018 season, Theo Epstein described the upcoming season as a “year of reckoning.” In his year-end press conference, Epstein went as far as to say of the Cubs offensive struggles, “…it’s probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production.” Big words, but was he ready to make the tough call when push came to shove? Ian Happ learned the answer the hard way when, after a lackluster spring, he was informed he would be starting the season in Iowa. He spent ninety-nine games there, working on getting back to what made him such a can’t-miss prospect when he burst onto the scene in 2017. Happ finally got the call to rejoin the team in advance of their showdown with the Brewers on July 26.
Now that Happ and Almora are once again on the big league roster, it begs the question: with all of Almora’s titanic struggles at the plate, is Happ really an upgrade?
Since Almora has not been very good with a bat in his hands, let’s start there. Happ and Almora are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to the kind of hit-tool they bring to the table. Almora is a contact hitter as evidenced by his career 77.7 percent Contact% according to FanGraphs. Happ strikes out a ton but belted 24 long balls his rookie season. As different as they may be, with Schwarber and Heyward firmly entrenched in the corner outfield spots, one of Almora/Happ has to be counted on to man center field. To avoid knee-jerk reactions to Almora’s poor start (and Happ’s numbers in AAA) I have included multiple seasons for our review. Here is how they compare in traditional batting categories.
Ian Happ’s numbers in Iowa should be taken with a grain of salt. They were, after all, earned while facing minor league pitching (and his focus was on the process, not necessarily the results). Still, by the traditional numbers, the competition isn’t even close. While Almora’s batting average might not look awful, that OBP this season is dreadful. Add that to a lack of slugging (despite a career-high in home runs), and it’s not hard to see why he has rated so poorly.
Happ hits for power. His home runs were down in 2018 from his rookie season, but he has the potential to flat-out mash. That has never really been in question. But beyond the home runs and slash lines, how do the two compare? Let’s look at two areas that have come to define the modern game: walks and strikeouts.
Once again, Happ is the embodiment of the modern slugger. His walk rate is elite. It allows him to play a vital role in generating offense, even when his hits aren’t falling. On the flip side, Almora rarely walks, which largely explains his poor OBP. As mentioned earlier, Happ strikes out a ton. One of the primary areas of focus in AAA was supposed to be on cutting that percentage down, though the results seem to leave a lot to be desired.
A deep dive into Happ and Almora’s offensive game shows an even more significant gap. Despite the extraordinary strikeout numbers. Happ is actually a much more disciplined hitter. Comparing numbers from the 2018 season, Ian Happ swung at only 24.7 percent of pitches out of the zone (the league average was 30.9 percent). Almora, on the other hand, swung at 41.9 percent of such pitches. His penchant for making consistent contact did not help him in these situations as his contact percentage on pitches outside the zone was in line with the league average at 63.8 percent. Long story only somewhat shorter, Happ swings at fewer pitches outside the zone than the league average while Almora swings at significantly more. That doesn’t help the ol’ on-base percentage in Albert’s case.
When it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, Happ also has the clear edge. Happ’s slash line with RISP is .233/.426/.425 to Almora’s .192/.250/.247. Righty/Lefty splits also favor Happ. He slashed .244/.374/.442 in 2018 against RHP to Almora’s .259/.292./.449 this season. While Happ’s slash of .202/.291/.317 against LHP in 2018 wasn’t pretty, he looks like hall of fame material compared to Almora’s .205/.239/.284 versus LHP this season. Take it for what it is, but despite his struggles, Happ’s slash against RHP in AAA was still a far cry better than Almora’s contributions to the big league squad.
Ian Happ against RHP in AAA this year (429 PAs):
Against RHP through May 1 (103 PAs):
Against RHP through June 1 (224 PAs):
Against RHP through July 1 (338 PAs):
Against RHP since July 2 (86 PAs):
— Brad (@ballskwok) July 25, 2019
Here is where Almora gets back in the game. He is, after all, an elite defender, right? Actually, not all would agree, but it is hard to argue that Almora is, at worst, an above-average center fielder. How does Happ compare?
There are myriad ways various statisticians go about attempting to quantify the quality of a player’s defense. I’ll admit that I am new to the world of defensive metrics, so I decided to keep things simple and stick with the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).
Having watched Almora man center field game after game, I was shocked to see how favorably Happ compared in this category. Going off this one statistic alone (never a good idea) Happ has been as good or better than Almora (depending on the season). All statistics have their limitations, and Happ saw nearly half as many innings as Almora in CF in 2017, but his UZR was quite a bit better. The -5 in 2018 was a significant dip, however, and can’t be ignored. What Happ does clearly bring to the table is tremendous versatility. While he may never be an elite infielder, he is slightly below average at second base and a hair above average at third (according to UZR). That versatility, especially on a Maddon helmed team, is a considerable edge.
While I have admittedly been skewed in favor of Happ in this article, I will say that the eye test tells a different story. Happ has looked fluid in the outfield, but Almora just seems to have that extra it factor. He reads the ball well off the bat and has a knack for making big plays. Whether or not that is quantifiable or even indicative of reality is for someone smarter than me to decide. Regardless, Almora is a solid defensive outfielder, if not perhaps elite.
What it really comes down to is what do the Cubs need more of out of their center fielder, offense or defense? Almora rates as a better defender, but is the gap so large that Happ’s offense cannot overcome it? Let’s look at one last stat comparison: player value.
These numbers are compiled by FanGraphs, and other than WAR, refer to runs above average in each category. The differences are stark. Almora has been well-below average on offense. Happ has been slightly below average on defense. While their WAR was similar, the Offense versus Defense debate skews heavily in Happ’s favor. If offense is needed, as it is so desperately in this Cubs lineup, Happ is clearly the better option.
By the numbers, Happ’s mid-season call-up should provide the Cubs with a much-needed upgrade in center field. Only time will tell if that bears out to be true.
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