Ian Happ, still only 22 years old and ranked as the third-best second base prospect in baseball, is next up in the Cubs’ never-ending line of young positional talent. Drafted out of the University of Cincinnati, he shares many of the same traits as fellow former Bearcat and current Cubs special assistant, Kevin Youkilis. Like Youk, Happ’s sense of awareness at the dish was apparent when he walked at a 16.4% rate in A+ ball last year.
This plate discipline and .403 wOBA earned Happ a mid-season promotion to AA Tennessee. While Happ had performed well at the lower levels of the minors, it was his production with the Smokies that caught my eye.
Double-A is often the point in player development when we get to bite our fingernails and hope for the best. At this level, batters sometimes have significant trouble adjusting to the more advanced arms. John Sickels, longtime Baseball Prospectus writer, said this of the difficulties hitters face:
“Lots of hitters will show a falsely good approach in the low minors. Those guys get promoted and suddenly you’re not waiting out Double-A pitchers like that. Suddenly you’re down 0-2 a lot and your slash line plummets. Most of these issues aren’t exclusive to the Double-A jump, of course. All these issues exist at every level jump to some degree. It’s just at that level, we see the biggest degree of differences.”
If the hitter handles AA competition with flying colors, some front offices — the Cubs included — will send him a boarding pass for the next available flight to their big-league city. You may recall that War Bear was called up to the 97-win 2015 club before seeing a pitch in AAA.
Happ’s promotion to AA was a fire alarm, signaling to all of us that we were about to get a very predictive look into the future of this particular prospect. And, man, did he alleviate my major concern: whiffs.
You see, despite walking at high rates throughout his early minor league career, Happ struck out at 23.6% and 23.5% rates in A and A+ play, respectively. While these strikeout rates weren’t extraordinarily high in and of themselves, they were certainly cause for concern when it came to his ability to progress through the system. That’s especially true for Happ because he only projects to have average game power.
Other than age, strikeout rate is the greatest predictive measurement of MLB success that we have as fans. It weighs more heavily than body stature, power, and walk rate. Improving strikeout rate by just 1% at the AA level correlates to an increase of 0.81 WAR through a hitter’s first six seasons.
Happ must’ve been sipping that Tennessee whiskey, because not only did he handle AA pitching well in his first go-round, he actually decreased his strikeout rate to 21.9%. Let’s get this straight: Ian Happ, who was 21 years old — younger than 91% of AA players — at the time of his promotion, just told most of his critics to quiet down about his whiff rate. And I’m including myself in that group.
It should be noted here that strikeout rate is obviously just one aspect of a hitter’s game, and shouldn’t be used as the sole measuring stick for either current or future performance. And even though Happ did whiff less, he only walked at a 7.4% rate. That was nearly half of his career minor-league rate, which is disconcerting to say the least. But the ability to make more frequent contact should outweigh the side-effects of a lower walk rate overall.
Happ concluded his 2016 progression with a successful stint in the highly competitive Arizona Fall League. Under the beautiful desert skies in October, he finished with a .336 wOBA and a familiar 17% walk rate. Of course, he also struck out at a 25% rate, albeit in a small sample of 88 plate appearances. He then dazzled us with two homers, one from each side of the plate, and an athletic catch in left during the Fall League All-Star contest.
KATOH projects Happ to be worth 4.5 WAR over his first six seasons, though that only takes into account offensive play, not defense or base running. Scouts rate Happ as a 55/80 runner, or slightly above average. Those same scouts believe Happ’s defense at second base is below average. Nevertheless, he could develop into a formidable outfielder because of his athleticism and above-average arm. Improving his outfield ability would give Joe Maddon another reason to play him more and would also add to the growing list of young Cubs players who aren’t restricted to just one defensive position.
If Ian Happ can continue to limit the whiffs, he could very well be the next of the big-name prospects to sniff the majors.