How David Ross helped Ian Happ succeed in the leadoff spot
MESA, Ariz. — David Ross takes pride in being a manager that is patient with his players.
In his first year-plus on the job, he’s talked a lot about having faith in his guys and his actions have backed that up. When All-Stars like Javy Báez and Kris Bryant struggled to start the 2020 season offensively, Ross preached patience and pointed to the back of the players’ baseball cards.
He also gave Ian Happ an opportunity to go out and earn the everyday center field job from the start and it resulted in a breakthrough season for the switch-hitter.
Happ led the Cubs in most offensive categories last year and drew some MVP votes. He also emerged as the answer to the team’s ongoing question in the leadoff spot and he credits Ross for part of that success.
Coming into the season, Bryant was Ross’ first choice to lead off. But after the former MVP was slowed by injury, Happ got his shot and ran with it, ultimately making 37 starts atop the Cubs order.
Happ had some experience leading off in 2018, sending the first pitch of that season into the right-field bleachers in Miami. However, he struggled after that and was moved lower in the order just a couple weeks into the year.
He believes his success in 2020 was due in large part to Ross’ patience.
“The fact that I really appreciate about Rossy is he’ll run you out there and keep it going,” Happ said. “That was just a little bit different than in the past when I hit leadoff and I think that’s what kinda led to the consistent success from last year.”
Ross hasn’t confirmed his intentions for how he’ll structure the Cubs lineup in 2021, but he said over the winter he envisions Happ as an option for leadoff once again.
Happ is willing to hit wherever, but part of the reason he enjoyed hitting leadoff was helping his teammates slot into spots in the lineup they were more comfortable in.
“For me to be able to take that job and take it off somebody else’s plate because it’s 5 at-bats every day, whether you want them or not,” Happ said. “The difference between getting on base once or getting on base twice and that 5th at-bat usually against an end-of-the-bullpen guy, it’s a big difference over the course of a 162 games. It’s a ton more at-bats.”
If Happ can stabilize the leadoff spot throughout the season, it can have a major trickle-down effect for the rest of this lineup. The Cubs are counting on bounceback seasons from Báez, Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Happ can aid that cause by setting the table for the heart of the order.
Regardless of where he hits in the order, Happ is heading into this season with an emphasis on making adjustments sooner. His overall 2020 line was strong, but he did slump towards the end of the season with a .159 batting average and .435 OPS over the final three weeks.
Part of that can be attributed to an eye injury suffered Sept. 3 in Pittsburgh when he fouled a ball off the ground and it came back up and hit him in the face.
“It was a tough three-week stretch to end the year for sure,” Happ said. “The eye was something that was a challenge and more than anything, a mental challenge. When something like that happens — especially something that really is paramount to your game — the doubt can creep in pretty easily if things start to go sideways.
“For me, getting past that was really important and the compounding effect of a long, difficult process to play the season.”
Happ was able to work through the eye issue and ensuing mental hurdles in enough time for the postseason, notching 3 singles and a homer in 8 playoff at-bats.
He credited that turnaround to getting two days off before the Marlins series started where he could actually watch video and focus on making adjustments rather than trying to get ready for a game each night.
“There were some issues with some things that I like to do left-handed that weren’t getting done, which is being really early, being on time, feeling like I have the adjustability,” Happ said. “I was able to fix that heading into our couple playoff games there and so I really felt good about making those adjustments.
“The goal of this year will be to make them quicker and to make them quicker mentally. More than anything in this game, it’s so, so very mental and any kind of doubt in your physical ability will show up really quickly whether you can feel it or not.”