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Before Tuesday’s series opener between the Cubs and the Reds, Willson Contreras posed for a picture at the top step of the Cubs’ dugout. As he posed, he stretched out the ends of a t-shirt, made by Obvious Shirts, that read:
Of course, Contreras doesn’t need to hold up a shirt to promote his own case to be at this season’s All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
He’s having by far the best offensive season of any National League catcher. Even when you open the group up to any NL catcher with at least 100 plate appearances, he’s at or near the top in basically every relevant category. And let’s face it, when fans are the ones voting, offense means a whole lot more than defense. Just take a look at the most recent ballot update; Contreras leads the next closest catcher (Atlanta’s Travis d’Arnaud) by nearly half-a-million votes.
That’s not where Happ is at as he looks for the first All-Star appearance of his career. For most of the positions on the ballot, only the top-two vote-getters move onto Phase 2 voting (thought the top vote-getter in each league automatically receives a starting spot), but for outfielders, the top-six move on. It would seem like it opens up more possibilities for Happ to move on to the next round. In that same update, however, Happ was stuck in 15th place with 330,325 votes, which was 249,785 behind the Braves’ Adam Duvall for sixth.
Happ’s ranking is two spots higher than MLB’s previous update on June 21, when he ranked 17th in votes. The backing from his teammates has helped, and so has the rise in support from fans on social media.
“It’s really cool,” Happ told CHGO. “I think just this fanbase, the people that you’re involved in around here, the fanbase of the Cubs, people wanting for you to get that recognition, that’s really cool.”
Still, Happ has a long way to go before he could even get close to the top-six, and with Phase 1 voting ending at 1 p.m. CT on Thursday, fans only have a few hours left to cast their votes and help Happ move on to Phase 2. But the question is still worth asking: Is Happ deserving of his first All-Star nod?
There’s certainly an argument that he has a case.
One thing the Cubs’ coaching staff often points to when asked about his play in 2022 is the consistency of his at-bats (waiting for his pitch, not chasing). He’s patient enough to take his walks (like the two he took during Wednesday’s 8-3 win over the Reds), but he’s also aggressive enough to take advantage of a pitcher’s mistake early in the count (like the 1-1 four-seamer that was left over the heart of the plate in the bottom of the first that he drove to the left-center gap for an RBI double).
On the season, Happ is hitting .275 with an .831 OPS, a career-low 19.5% strikeout rate, a 131 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR. That’s been bolstered by his incredible run in June, where he’s hit .316 and has a .932 OPS, a 13.5% strikeout rate and a 157 wRC+.
“I think when you’re consistent, it’s hard to point to one thing, because they’ve all shown up,” Ross said this past weekend in St. Louis, when asked what the key has been to Happ’s season. “There’s power, there’s the hitting for average, there’s the slug in there from both sides of the plate being a switch hitter. Being able to keep his bat in the lineup consistently at the top has been important for us. It’s been really important for us.
“I think all those things, when you’re consistent, playing your defense, your baserunning, being healthy. All those things play into being consistent, being able to put up the numbers he’s put up and hold down the top of our lineup. He’s been really big for us.”
Perhaps, as Happ often says, his success has come just as a result of being able to get everyday at-bats from both sides of the plate and get in a real rhythm. Ask hitting coach Greg Brown, though, and you’ll find that he just sees a player in his sixth season in the majors maturing into that big-league ballplayer the Cubs have always envisioned.
“He’s been around the league now a couple times,” Brown said. “He understands how guys are approaching him, how he wants to attack, and then we apply that. You talk about maturation, I think that you’re seeing a mature player in Ian Happ now. Happ is continuing to grow. There’s a different experience level and a different calmness. I think that the things that he’s learned through his trials and tribulations have been that the lows aren’t as low as you think they are, and the highs aren’t as high as you think they are. He’s just been a model of consistency.”
So clearly, Happ has developed the traits of an All-Star caliber player, but where does that leave him when it comes to the numbers he puts up compared to his peers?
There are 14 NL outfielders ahead of Happ as of the last update, and each of them has had at least 190 plate appearances this season. Though not all are considered “qualified” hitters, this amount of PAs seems to be the best way to see Happ’s stats side by side with those ahead of him in fan voting. So, here’s how Happ ranks in various offensive categories compared with the 14 outfielders with more votes on the most recent ballot (per FanGraphs):
- Happ’s 2.0 fWAR ranks below only Mookie Betts (3.3) and Brandon Nimmo (2.4)
- His 131 wRC+ ranks below only Joc Pederson (159), Betts (148) and Kyle Schwarber (132) is tied with Nimmo, and is ahead of Ronald Acuña Jr. (130) and Juan Soto (130)
- His .361 wOBA ranks below only Pederson (.395), Betts (.380) and Schwarber (.363) and is tied with Acuña
- His .831 OPS ranks below only Pederson (.934), Betts (.884) and Schwarber (.843)
- His 13.1% walk rate ranks below only Soto (18.9%) and Schwarber (15.1%)
- And his .377 on-base percentage tops every other outfielder ahead of him in voting
Though those are certainly not all the offensive categories that matter, they paint a solid picture of the fact that Happ has numbers that rival those from players considered to be the best outfielders in the NL. For what it’s worth, of the top-14 vote-getters at the position, only Betts, Pederson and Schwarber appear to have consistently better stats than Happ so far this season — and only those first two are in the top six on the ballot.
“It’s been good,” Happ said of his season so far. “I think just going out there, having really good, consistent at-bats and feeling like the production is there. I’m right up there in that category, what the outfielders are doing in this league, and feel like I’m a part of that. That’s special.
“What you think you’re capable of as a player, and then being able to see some of that stuff come out compared to your peers like that, it feels good. It feels good to feel like you’re part of that group.”
So why, then, is Happ so low in the ballot?
Well, remember, this is a fan vote. There’s a reason why players like Betts, Acuña and Soto are so far ahead of Happ. While they’re generally considered to be household names in baseball, Happ doesn’t have that same name recognition across the country. Despite the very similar numbers at the plate, Happ’s biggest obstacle is that his name doesn’t quite hold the same weight that others’ do.
“Sometimes, that stuff is driven by names and, obviously, fans,” Ross said. “The popularity contest plays into that a little bit, but Ian, I think the consistency he’s shown this year definitely has proven that he’s an All-Star caliber player.”
Another potential challenge is the success of his team. Despite Wednesday’s win, the Cubs still sit at 29-46 and 14 games back of the Brewers in the NL Central. It could be that the lack of team success has had a negative impact — “Winning teams, maybe they get a little more love. Who knows?” Ross said — when it comes time for voters to cast a ballot for any Cubs player not named Willson Contreras.
At this point, it’s unlikely that Happ jumps much higher prior to the 1 p.m. CT deadline on Thursday. When the players moving on to Phase 2 are announced at 4 p.m. CT, it would be a surprise to hear his name get called.
But that shouldn’t squash his chance at being selected this season. While the fans control the starting position players, reserves are determined by “player ballot” choices and selections made by the commissioner’s office. So even if he doesn’t end up getting a huge push in votes, there’s every chance that the season he’s so far put together earns him the respect to get voted in by his peers. And that would help him finally check off a goal all players have when they finally break into the big leagues.
“It’d be awesome,” Happ said. “Just the journey that takes you six years into your big league career and what that means. To be a part of that game, to be elected and join that group would be really, really special.”
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