No one wants to make difficult decisions, and that includes Joe Maddon. The venerable skipper went into spring training with a stated goal to audition at least four hitters in the leadoff spot, seemingly with the intent of putting together a committee of sorts. But you know Maddon was really hoping one of those hitters would take the job and run with it.
Enter Ian Happ, who saved Maddon even the slightest bit of anxiety over making up his mind about who would bat at the top of the order.
I’d be lying if I told you I saw this coming. Heck, you can go back through what I’ve written over the last two years and find that I’ve put Happ out there as the most likely trade candidate from among the young players. He just seemed, I don’t know, incongruous or something. Like he didn’t quite fit anywhere in particular.
Happ was a square peg in a round hole, or so I’d analogized, and it didn’t make much sense to pound him into place. But the thing about forcing together pieces that aren’t really supposed to fit is that they have a tendency to become stuck in place with a much stronger connection than you’d get from the proper pieces. So by being willing to force the issue and push himself even when it wasn’t a perfect match, Happ has become an nigh inextricable fixture in the starting lineup.
By so doing, the guy who I thought was the most likely candidate to be traded away from the organization may have actually come to best embody its philosophy.
“I’ve never been afraid of making changes,” Happ told The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma (subscription required/recommended). “I dive into them. I don’t think that being uncomfortable is something to be afraid of. It’s always going to be uncomfortable doing that. But in order to keep developing, keep having success, you have to put yourself in situations to be uncomfortable and figure something out. Keep raising the level of your game. It’s just not being afraid to do it and understanding that if you’re not good enough, you have to keep getting better.”
Maybe it’s just me doing a little forcing of my own to make things fit the story I’m trying to tell, but doesn’t that sound an awful lot like how Jed Hoyer described the front office’s “flat hierarcy” earlier this year? The ideas of not settling for just being good enough and not being afraid to challenge the status quo certainly dovetail. Then there’s that willingness to be uncomfortable, which isn’t something we see all that often with people who’ve reached the pinnacle of their field.
Not that Happ has done so if we break things down to their more granular definitions, but he’s gotten to the majors and had a very successful rookie season. He easily could have continued to view himself as a second baseman, something he was very stubborn about early in his professional career. But, much like Kyle Schwarber, Happ has accepted and embraced his new role in the outfield.
As Sharma writes, the sophomore slugger has even undergone his own physical transformation his offseason. Though not as dramatic as the man who’ll often be playing to his right, Happ wanted to be more agile and explosive in the field.
“I’m definitely leaner and in a more comfortable spot where I feel like I can go out, run around and be more agile,” Happ said. “I’ve been working out pretty diligently since high school, but it was more of a football-based strength program because that’s just what a lot of colleges are into. Getting to pro ball and being able to work with someone who really focused on the mobility side and injury prevention, you get into a spot where every day you’re focused on being agile and limber.”
Did you notice what he said there? I’ll forgive you if you missed it since it’s sort of a flyover, but he claimed he’s “more comfortable” now. And that came as a direct result of being uncomfortable, of accepting a new role and understanding that he’d have to start doing things differently.
The same may not be so true of his new role at the top of the batting order, though, at least not the part about doing things differently. Part of the reason Happ makes so much sense in that No. 1 spot is that he’s not going to change
“[T]he proof will really be during the season when they can show that they’re not going to change their approach,” Hoyer told 670 The Score back in February when describing his ideal leadoff hitter. “You really want guys to have natural, good at-bats.
“When guys suddenly try to see more pitches, when they try to get on base more, I don’t think that’s a positive,” Hoyer said. “I think now all of a sudden they’re trying to be something they’re not. I think what you really need is a guy who can lead off and not impact the way they play.”
Now, don’t go getting that twisted and think it means that Happ is going to be the exact same hitter who displayed a little too much swing-and-miss in his game. The switch-hitting outfielder showed a good deal of improvement in that regard last season and Sharma detailed the work he’s done with assistant hitting coach Andy Haines to cover holes in his swing from both sides. But what Hoyer was talking about is more mental than mechanical.
While it’s just a coincidence that “Happ” sounds like “hack,” that’s exactly what the Cubs leadoff hitter is going up there to do. He’s not going to watch strikes go by just for the sake of taking pitches, which is why five of his seven spring homers led off games and why three of those have come against potential Hall of Famers Madison Bumgarner and Felix Hernandez.
We can go back and forth all day about how pitchers are just looking to work out kinks during the exhibition season and how Happ will see fewer challenge fastballs once the real games start, but the fact remains that no pitcher wants to open with a walk. Happ is going to see strikes. And he is going to swing at strikes. And he is going to punish mistakes.
“Pitchers throw more homers than you hit,” Haines told Sharma, something he said he’d borrowed from Maddon. “I told that to Ian like 50 times this spring training. They’re going to throw him homers, he doesn’t have to hit them. Because his swing just works that way. A guy makes a mistake and he barrels it, it’s a home run just because of the tremendous bat speed and strength.”
Whether you call him a square peg in a round hole or a Trivial Pursuit pie that got wedged in the wrong way or an earworm that you can’t stop singing, Ian Happ has made himself damn near inextricable. I tried like hell to pry it loose, but I’ve surrendered to the idea that this guy who didn’t seem to fit anywhere is easily the best fit for the Cubs at the top of the order.