By the end of the Cubs’ second spring training game of 2019, Ian Happ had already notched as many innings at second base (3) as he did in all of 2018.
It’s still unknown how much he’ll really be included in the second-base picture once the regular season starts, but at the very least, Happ has an opportunity to earn playing time there.
And, even more important, the 24-year-old Happ is finding his voice and coming into his own with the Cubs.
Happ is typically pretty reserved and soft-spoken, especially in the media. He is the type to let his play do the talking for him and he definitely bought into the old school ways of the game — keep your head down and do your work as a young player, learning and listening instead of talking.
Yet as he enters Year 3 in the big leagues, Happ found it necessary to step up and let his voice be heard. He reached out to manager Joe Maddon shortly after last season ended and made it known he wanted to be considered for second base in 2019.
“Joe and I have always had a really good relationship, but I think you kind of have to earn your stripes,” Happ said. “Not that I have yet, but I think the more experience you have, the more time you spend with somebody, you’re able to have that open relationship, that open dialogue.
“And Joe is so good about that — letting us feel like we have a say and that we can say whatever we want to him and he’ll take it in and listen to us.”
Last spring, the Cubs were committed to getting Happ more reps in the outfield and making strides as a hitter to fill the leadoff role. So after playing 44 games and 260.1 innings at second base in his rookie year of 2017, Happ appeared in only 2 games at the position in 2018, managing 3 innings and 0 starts.
“[Joe and I] had some really good candid conversations where I was able to say, ‘Look, I would like to be considered for this.’ ‘I would like some time there,’” Happ said. “Because last spring training, I played all center field and you get to the season and it’s like, we’ll now I have to play them all.
“So that was my goal this spring — come in, play a bunch of different positions to really prepare myself for what I’m going to be doing here this season.”
Maddon praised Happ for how he handled the matter and understands the young switch-hitter just wants to find a way into the lineup any way he can.
Happ’s focus is all about increasing his versatility and convincing the Cubs he’s a viable option defensively at second base — a tough position for any young player to learn how to play well, let alone a guy who only spends part of his time at the position while moving all around the diamond.
While Happ is trying to adjust to the league offensively and getting more experience in the outfield, he’s also been tasked with learning the corner infield spots in addition to all the nuances of second base — cutoffs, turning double plays, ranging up the middle for balls, adjusting as part of a shift, etc.
“[Cubs infield coach Brian Butterfield] is really excited about where he’s at and Ian is also,” Maddon said last week. “It’s repetition. It’s not like he’s — by any means — overwhelmed. It’s just getting to play more often in those spots.”
Happ said he’s been in constant communication with Maddon this spring, trying to map out a few days in advance so Happ knows when he’ll have time to work on fine-tuning his skills while wearing all these different gloves.
And of course, there’s obviously the offensive end — the area of Happ’s game that is most enticing.
“It’s just being more consistent,” Happ said. “I’ve had some really, really good times. Before the All-Star Break last year, I was playing really well, I was playing good baseball. And then in the second half, I meandered into somewhere where I didn’t want to be.
“It’s being more consistent, continuing to learn the league, continuing to adjust to the league both offensively and defensively. Be more consistent defensively and be able to be someone who can be counted on in multiple spots.”
Happ’s right — in the first half last year, he was a much better offensive player: .256/.379/.453 slash line (.832 OPS) with 11 homers vs. a .196/.313/.340 slash line (.653 OPS) and 4 homers after the All-Star Break. He also posted some serious splits, hitting .244 with an .816 OPS while hitting left-handed against right-handed pitchers and only a .202 average and .608 OPS while serving as a right-handed hitter against left-handed pitchers.
Happ has often pointed to Ben Zobrist as a great role model in terms of the veteran’s defensive versatility, but Zobrist’s plate approach is also a perfect example for Happ, especially as a switch hitter.
Zobrist continues to decrease his strikeouts while maintaining a high walk rate. Happ saw a huge jump in walk percentage (15.2 percent) last year compared to his rookie season (9.4 percent), but also struck out at a much higher rate (36.1 percent vs. 31.2 percent).
Among MLB hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in 2018, only Mike Zunino (37 percent) and Chris Davis (36.8 percent) struck out at a higher rate than Happ. But the Cubs young hitter also ranked 11th in walk percentage, directly behind Jose Ramirez, Aaron Judge and teammate Kyle Schwarber.
“In a perfect world, [the next step for Happ] would be a little bit more consistent contact,” Maddon said. “Because with more contact, the numbers are gonna spike. He hits the ball really hard and he hits the ball really far. It’s gonna start with just more consistent contact, more consistent hard contact and normally that occurs on the left side.
“We gotta build up his right side so that we can give left-handed hitters rest vs. left-handed pitchers and pop him in there right-handed. It starts there. It’s gonna be a more efficient swing, meaning just putting the ball in play hard more consistently and try to continue to work on a two-strike approach.”