Ian Happ putting his faith in the winds of change
You’ll hear baseball players talk a lot about keeping their focus on only what they can control.
This is a game of failure, but it’s also a game where luck can serve as a central theme. A player can do everything right and hit a ball 115 mph off the bat on a line, but if it’s right at a defender, it’s an 0-for-1 in the scorebook.
Early in the 2021 season, Ian Happ is patiently waiting for his “baseball luck” to show up.
After Wednesday’s win, he is hitting .167 with a .560 OPS but the advanced analytics tell a bit of a different story. His “expected” batting average — per Statcast — is .226 day and his 50% hard-hit rate would represent a career high.
In one mark, Happ is actually outperforming his breakout campaign from 2020. His xwOBA — Expected Weighted On-base Average, which is essentially a metric that determines overall offensive value with luck and defense eliminated from the equation — is .360 this season compared to .358 last year.
“Baseball’s a hard game,” Happ said on a Zoom conference while wearing a “Pro Batting” T-shirt. “You gotta stay really, really locked in with the process. xwOBA — all of the good stuff looks really good. All the metrics — fly ball rates, walk rates, hard-hit percentages, barrel percentage — all that stuff looks really good.
“So you gotta trust the process and trust the baseball gods. It’s a long season. They’re gonna be good to me at some point. Maybe sacrifice a few chickens here.”
Happ isn’t the only Cubs hitter who might want to take a page out of the book of the 1989 classic “Major League” but he is continually reminding himself that luck usually evens out during the course of a 162-game season.
But he wouldn’t turn down some help from Mother Nature, either.
The wind plays a huge role at Wrigley Field and Happ hopes the weather helps him pick up a few hits later in the year.
Sunday evening was a perfect example. The wind was blowing out slightly at “The Friendly Confines” but didn’t work in Happ’s favor in the 2nd inning against the Braves.
He smacked a fly ball 100.2 mph that went 390 feet with an expected batting average of .520. But he hit it to the wrong part of the ballpark and it settled into the glove of Braves outfielder Guillermo Heredia just before the warning track in center field.
“Understanding that at some point, the wind here will blow out and it will blow some balls in the right direction,” Happ said.
In the mean time, he’s focused on ensuring his process doesn’t waver even if the results in the box score aren’t exactly what he wants to see.
“The hardest part is to not panic, to not change what you’re doing from a mental or physical standpoint,” he said. “It’s really easy when you’re not getting results to think that it’s something with your swing or with pitch selection and to try to do too much.
“I think it’s something I’ve done a good job of — continuing to be disciplined in the zone, getting on base. Just the fact that my on-base percentage is over .300 and getting on base for the guys behind me is kind of a testament to sticking with the process and not getting out of the plan.”
Happ is right — he is getting on base. He’s reached safely in all 15 of his starts this season.
In the 16-4 win Wednesday night, he had an RBI single, walked twice and scored a run.
“Those expected numbers always make me laugh a little bit,” David Ross said. “I think Ian is in a place where he understands the strike zone. He’s taken walks; he’s taken a lot of leadoff walks to start the game. He’s hit some balls hard at times with not a lot to show for it. I think he’s coming.
“Do I feel like he’s locked in, like the version we saw last year? Not quite yet. But I think the great thing about Ian, even when he’s in between or not quite as comfortable as he wants to be, he’s still taking his walks, he still hits the ball real hard the other way. Ian’s still working on being even a better version of himself than he is right now.”
Happ carries an on-base percentage that is 171 points above his batting average thanks to 13 walks and 1 hit-by-pitch. So even if the hits aren’t falling, he’s still setting the table at the top of the Cubs lineup.
Those are the types of stats he’s going to focus on until he feels like his results reflect his process.
And yes, he’s still going to look at xwOBA to give him a mental boost.
“Whatever makes you feel good,” he said with a bit of a smile. “That’s part of the game. It’s all confidence.”