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Whatever a fan might think about the Cubs trading away their championship core last July, one of the silver linings of all of those changes was that it created space for Ian Happ to be in the lineup a lot more consistently. Day in, day out, he knew he would be out there.
That’s a change that Happ credits in part for helping him get back to his old self as a hitter.
When Happ came up as a rookie in 2017, he was a switch hitter who had success from both sides of the plate. But as his career progressed, he went from being better on the right side to better on the left, and then the gap between his left and right-handed splits grew wider. That is until the last two months of the 2021 season, when he was the hottest hitter in the Cubs lineup.
What sparked that change? The chance to be in the lineup every day.
“The catalyst was freedom,” Happ said.
Freedom from feeling like he had a to press at times. Freedom from trying to manufacture hits so he could try and ensure he would be in the lineup the next day. A pressure Happ says is not uncommon for batters.
Once Happ didn’t have to think about that anymore, he started hitting again. In August and September of last year, he hit 15 of his 25 home runs on the season. After struggling mightily in June and July, Happ batted .255 with an .820 OPS in August and .317 with an OPS of 1.020 in September.
“The catalyst was being able to play every day and know that I was going to be in there,” Happ said. “I then had the freedom to try some stuff and get back to what I did in ‘17. To be more upright and let the swing eat a little bit and feel like I could take chances instead of being a really defensive right-handed hitter who was just trying to get by.”
Happ is naturally a right-handed hitter, but when he was 8 he saw his older brother Chris, who was 14, working on switch-hitting, so he decided to emulate his big brother. It took until Happ was a freshman in high school to hit lefty in a game. As a pro, he had gradually become a better left-handed hitter since his rookie season. But his improvements from last year have carried over so far in 2022.
Going into Sunday night’s game against the Dodgers, Happ was hitting .333 from the right side and .240 from his left. His rookie year is the only other time he has hit better as a right-hander in his major league career. Like the final months of last season, Happ has been one of the most regular presences in manager David Ross’s lineups. Of their 29 games so far, Happ has played in 26 of them. One of the few times he has sat out was game one of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw on the mound.
“There’s consistency, being in there, knowing that you’re going to be in there,” Happ said. “Putting together solid at-bats, and honestly, there was a lot of a mentality change the last couple of months of last year.”
There have also been some mechanical changes to his swing that he worked on with Cubs hitting coach Greg Brown during spring training, though Happ prefers to keep the specifics of those under wraps. Happ’s manager suggests that whatever Happ has done has allowed him to wait on the ball a little longer.
“He’s a little more firm in his back side, staying behind the baseball a little bit. Him and [Greg Brown] put in a lot of work,” Ross said.
Happ has looked less “jumpy” from the right side this year, Ross said, and because of that, Happ has been better at letting the ball travel further into the zone before he swings. The result is more opposite field hits and better pitch selection. For example, Happ has been better able to handle sinkers and off-speed pitches down and in and take them to right field for singles, Ross said.
Those are all abilities that Happ says he had earlier in his career, but a variety of factors had moved him away from what made him successful as a rookie in 2017. Inconsistency in playing time, a relegation to the minors for a large part of the 2019 season, and a pandemic-shortened season have all made the last few years a challenge. But in the last two months of 2021 and so far this year, Happ has looked like himself at the plate again.
“Some of those results, they’ve happened because of the mentality and the process, not necessarily because of a bunch of mechanical stuff,” he said. “That’s something I really strongly believe in. I believe that I am a good right-handed hitter. I’ve shown that in my career, and I’d gotten away from some of the things that made me good.”
On the whole, silver linings like this are sorely needed for the Cubs. They have won just nine games; only the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds are worse. They dropped all three games of the weekend series against the Dodgers, highlighing how far the two teams have diverged since going head-to-head in the 2016 and 2017 postseasons.
Before Sunday night’s 7-1 loss to Walker Buehler and the Dodgers that completed the sweep and an 0-5 homestand, Ross articulated his vision for a future where the Cubs can compete with the likes of Los Angeles again. It’s one where his team has the three key components of a championship club. Solid starting pitching, a knockout bullpen, and good offense. The Cubs might have some of the pieces in place for the first two, but they will need more of the third in order to get back in contention. Take out their 21-0 win over the Pirates a couple of weeks ago, and the Cubs would rank right near the bottom of the league in total runs scored.
What worked for Happ won’t necessarily work for the rest of the lineup, though, but at least a mental approach similar to his might be a good step.
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