The Cardinals had sent a message early in the series: they weren’t that worried about Ian Happ’s right-handed swing.
In his second at-bat, Happ proved that they should be. He turned on a high inside fastball and lined a home run into the left field bleachers. Happ paused for a moment to admire his work.
“We knew he had that production in him,” Cubs manager David Ross of the best hitter on his team through the first quarter of the season, “and he had the capability of doing that. But just going out and doing it was what we needed to see, and he’s proven that so far this year.”
Pick a statistic, and Happ probably leads the Cubs. Batting average (.315)? Check. On-base percentage (.438)? Check. Slugging (.671)? Check. Happ is on pace for career highs on both sides of the plate. But the most obvious jump is his improvement against left-handed starters.
While the Cubs’ star right-handed hitters, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, are off to a slow start at the plate, Happ’s versatility becomes all the more important against southpaws.
In the Crosstown Classic opener on Friday, the Cubs are scheduled to face the best left-handed starter they’ve seen all year: Dallas Keuchel.
The Cardinals likely knew of Happ’s career track record against lefties when Kwang Hyun Kim intentionally walked Willson Contreras on Monday to get to Happ.
That at least would partially explain why they decided Kim had a better chance against Happ with that bases loaded than he did against Contreras, who hadn’t had a hit in five games, with runners on second and third.
St. Louis’ gamble did pay off. Happ struck out on three inside pitches.
But those who had been paying close attention to the Cubs all year knew just how big of a gamble the Cardinals had taken. Sure, two years ago, Happ’s production against southpaw starters hit a career low (.206). But a lot has changed since.
“Those are the ones you look back on,” Happ said of the strikeout, “you go, ‘I need to be better. I need to put the ball in play there. I need to give us a chance to score a run.’”
In his next at-bat, Happ hit a solo homer off Kim. It was the Cubs’ only run of the game.
“It’s just repetition,” Happ said. “… If you are only hitting left handed, you're not getting at-bats from the right side, for a week or two weeks, and you're facing some nasty lefty out of the pen, your results probably aren't going to be that good, right?”
As Happ noted, he’s had less than 300 major league plate appearances against left-handed pitching – compared to his over 800 facing righties. But in his months long stint in Triple-A last season, Happ was getting consistent at-bats from both sides. He felt like he was in a "flow" and carried that long-elusive feeling back to the big leagues.
“He went through some hard times a little bit,” said Cubs pitcher Colin Rea, who was with Happ in Triple-A Iowa last year. “But he’s just such a competitor and an athlete that you knew he was going to come back around. And he’s showing it right now.”
It’s a small sample size, but against the 20 starting pitchers the Cubs have faced this season, Happ is actually hitting better against left-handers (.385) than right-handers (.300).
“I think he’s taken it as a personal challenge,” said Nico Hoerner, who shared a house with Happ in Spring Training and the break that followed, “to really push himself to the next level as a guy who hits from both sides and plays every day. So, seeing his improvement there has been awesome, and I’m looking forward to watching him more.”