The secret to Ian Happ’s success this season
As Ian Happ ramped up his offseason program this past winter, he began to take a deep dive at some advanced metrics to see some of his strengths and weaknesses defensively.
He felt confident about his offensive approach given how he ended the 2021 season but he knew he wanted to reach another level as a player. What he found was his reaction time was pretty solid.
“When I looked at the metrics, my first step was really good,” Happ said.
In 2021, but especially in 2020, his reaction time was some of the best in Major League Baseball. But there was one thing that was holding him back.
“My jumps were really good and I would kinda lose a little bit on that efficiency part,” Happ said.
He ranked towards the bottom in baseball in 2019, 2020 and 2021 in route efficiency metrics. So, Happ wanted to continue to build off that first step strength and maximize that so that it could lessen the affects of his route efficiency while he works to improve his path to the ball.
That meant putting in work with third base coach Willie Harris, who primarily works with the outfielders on their game. Harris set up drills for Happ to increase his first step and reaction time. The results have been immediate. He’s in the Top 5% of MLB outfielders reaction time, per Baseball Savant. He went from very good to elite in that regard.
“I don’t wanna share my drills,” Harris said with a smile. “That drill is for me and Happ, [but] you see how well he’s doing.”
It’s improving Happ’s overall defensive game. Per FanGraphs, Happ has posted a 2.3 ultimate zone rating (UZR), an all-encompassing defensive metric that quantifies how many runs a player saved or allowed through their defense.
A 0 UZR would be average, 5 is above average, 10 is great and 15 is Gold Glove level. The metric is a counting stat, so the more time you add, the greater the number can be. Happ’s UZR/150 games is 24.9, placing him in elite category.
“Early in the season he’s been doing really well out there; hopefully we can keep it going for him,” Harris said.
His success has stemmed from his offseason improvements, but they’ve also come from a mental aspect. Last season, Happ started the year as the team’s center fielder, but saw time at all three outfield spots, played some second base and even appeared at third base for 1.1 innings.
This year, he has been in left field on a daily basis.
“That consistency breeds success, I think,” Happ said. “Then being able to get really, really comfortable in that spot and not worry about all right, what does it look like in center? How do I transition back to left? Do I have to take groundballs?
“It’s knowing that you’re gonna have one thing to worry about.”
David Ross knew the importance of that. He only played one position in his career, but he’s well aware of the time and effort that players who can move around and play multiple spots on the diamond put in.
For his entire career, Happ has never had a true home defensively. When he first came up in 2017, he was primarily an outfielder but also spent time at second and third base. As his career went on, he continued to bounce around the diamond and he has played every defensive position except catcher and shortstop — he even pitched 1 inning in 2018.
“You’re constantly grinding over your defense and you’re trying to get better in areas or get work in,” Ross said. “It just is mentally taxing. Then you’ve also gotta work on your swing and hitting. It’s just a lot. The more you can take off somebody’s plate and the more comfortable they feel just going to work, I think that helps a lot.”
It has helped for both Happ and the Cubs. Happ’s defense has come a long way, but his offense has continued to excel. He has a .776 OPS this season and is reaching base at an impressive .391 clip. Most impressively, though, is the fact he’s doing it from both sides of the plate. In his career, Happ has shown more success as a left-handed hitter against righties, but this year he’s taken a jump from the right-handed side.
That’s rooted in Happ’s pitch selection and taking what the pitchers are throwing him from the right side. It’s resulted in a .419 OBP and an .884 OPS against left-handed pitchers. His improvements as a right-handed hitter were on display in his home run off Braves pitcher Max Fried, one of the premier southpaws in baseball.
“It looks like he’s just using all fields and being able to hit soft, taking the down in off-speed pitch that might wrap around and still be able to get the head out on a guy like Max Fried with a homer or somebody’s taking him away and he’s able to sneak a base hit to right,” Ross said. “Really solid holistic approach from the right side in my opinion so far.”
Happ’s strong start to the 2022 has benefitted the Cubs. His 1.2 WAR, per Baseball Reference, is the highest among position players on the team.
“Overall, the story has been Seiya [Suzuki] but probably the MVP of our group is Ian Happ, for me,” Ross said earlier this month. “The defense has improved so much and the way he’s playing outfield for us.
“Moving somebody that you trust in center field to a corner is gonna improve their defense. Seems to be very comfortable this year out there, making really good reads.”