Ian Happ’s name, near the bottom of the list of NL Most Valuable Player vote-getters, hinted at a comeback story that played out at Wrigley Filed this season.
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman won the award, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced on MLB Network on Tuesday, with Cubs Cy Young finalist Yu Darvish (two seventh-, two-ninth- and two 10th-place votes) and reliever Ryan Tepera (one 10th-place) also receiving votes. But Happ’s breakout 2020 season was a rare bright spot on the Cubs’ floundering offense this year.
Just a year and a half after the Cubs sent Happ back down to Triple-A to start 2019, the outfielder was the Cubs’ only hitter to receive MVP votes (one 10th-place vote) this season.
With a strong start on both sides of the plate, Happ established himself in the MVP race midway through the season. By Aug. 19, Happ was slashing .315/.438/.671., leading NL switch hitters in on-base percentage. At that point, he was hitting .340 (17-for-50) from the left side and .260 (6-for-23) from the right.
Happ took over the leadoff spot when Kris Bryant was out with left wrist and finger injuries in mid-August, and the outfielder held onto that spot for the rest of the season.
“Rizz (Anthony Rizzo) was saying the leadoff spot here is cursed,” Bryant said, laughing. “… If Ian’s swinging the bat well and he’s going to be the leadoff guy, wherever I’ve got to go play, I’m up for that.”
The fact that Cubs manager David Ross trusted Happ in that spot, the center fielder said at the end of the year, meant a lot to him.
“I know that for us it’s been a little bit of a struggle for that position,” Happ continued, “so just being the one that takes the burden on and says, ‘Look, I’m going to take the five (plate appearances) every day, and let’s find a way to score some runs, and I’m going to find a way to get on base twice a day for the team. That’s my goal every day.”
Happ ran into a brief rough patch in September, recording 10 strikeouts in three games against the Reds. His MVP candidacy took a hit as he added just six hits in 11 games in the middle of that month. But Happ rebound to score the Cubs’ only run in the playoffs on a solo homer.
Happ finished the season leading the Cubs in hits (51), home runs (12) and slugging percentage (.505). He came in second to Jason Heyward in batting average (.265) and on-base percentage (.361).
“Him having to stay the course,” Heyward said of Happ after the Marlins eliminated the Cubs from postseason play, “be sent down, have some things go not necessarily his way, have some success and grind through it, it did a lot for this ball club, and I let him know that was special.”