Ian Happ Remains Highly Underrated

Ian Happ has done a damn fine job of turning himself into an everyday left fielder, but all he’s got to show for it outside of two Gold Gloves is a place in the sweeping pantheon of underrated Cubs players. For whatever reason, fans and outside observers alike continue to overlook Happ even as he keeps showing up and showing out year after year. We’ll get to my theories on that in a bit, but let’s first look at what spurred this column.

MLB Network put out its list of top 10 left fielders right now, which was more about engagement than analysis, and Happ wasn’t on it. Not only that, but the Astros had two players listed and there were two others who started 16 or fewer games with 161 or fewer innings in left (Brandon Nimmo: 10, 88; Lars Nootbaar: 16, 161).

One could argue that Juan Soto won’t be a left fielder moving forward, but half of the guys here only play the position on a part-time basis. Again, this is a piece of engagement bait that got me and a whole bunch of other chronically online folks to complain about it.

Which is exactly what an inexplicably large number of Cubs fans have been doing about Happ’s performance since 2018. He got a pass during that rookie year because no one had any expectations. Once they started to believe he was a middle-of-the-order slugger, however, even being one of the best at his position across all of MLB wasn’t going to be enough to make up for his failure to…you know, I’m not exactly sure what he’s failed to do.

Since he debuted — and remember, this includes partial seasons in both 2017 and ’19 — Happ ranks 10th among all primary left fielders with 14.4 fWAR. His 115 wRC+ is just 18th, but his 125 homers are 12th, his 51 steals are tied for 13th, and his 392 RBI are 14th. Among left fielders with at least 500 innings played over that span, Happ ranks eighth with 20 DRS and second with a 22.5 UZR.

Ah, but this is about who’s the best right now. In that case, Happ’s 3.5 fWAR ranked fourth among primary left fielders in 2023 while his 21 homers were eighth, his 86 runs scored were seventh, and his 84 RBI sat fourth. He also won a Gold Glove, though I’m not going to argue that on the basis of merit because I was shocked that he was even nominated. Still, he’s got the trophies and a bunch of other guys don’t.

That Happ is highly underrated isn’t in question, and I can probably count on the Facebook comments to explain why he’s actually bad. But that’s just wild to me because, like, how do you look at what he’s done and just throw out all manner of logic to decide he isn’t good? And some people think he flat-out sucks, which is super crazy.

Happ has never had a season of less than 105 wRC+ and his 115 career mark means he’s been 15% better than the average run-producer over the last seven seasons. His strikeout rate has leveled off in the low 20s over the last two seasons, both of which have seen him log over 600 plate appearances, and he’s maintained a steadier on-base percentage than his fluctuating batting average might otherwise indicate.

So why do so many people knock him relentlessly? Rather than waiting for answers straight from the horses’ mouths, I’ll say it comes down to three things: Lack of superstar production, inconsistency within each season, and his 2019 demotion. Those are all matters of mistaken perception, especially in a sport largely defined by inconsistency, but we all know how that informs an individual’s reality.

Happ had the unfortunate pleasure of following in the footsteps of World Series heroes Kris Bryant, Javy Báez, Anthony Rizzo, and even Kyle Schwarber. And while even the grace of that title wasn’t enough to save KB in the wake of a report that he’d turned down a Cubs offer “well north of $200 million” — which isn’t accurate, but that’s water over the dam — Happ didn’t even get dribblings of communion wine or crumbs of the host. His greatest sin to this point is simply that he’s never authored one of those indelible moments we’ll never forget.

It sure didn’t help that David Ross stubbornly kept Happ in the three-hole when it was clear that wasn’t working for either player or team. Sins of the Grandpa, or something like that.

The other issue, as noted above, is that Happ dug himself a perception hole when he put up a 36.1% strikeout rate in 2018 and then was sent to Triple-A for most of ’19. If there’s one thing the rabble will hold against hitters more than any other shortcoming, it’s strikeouts. Never mind that his performance after being promoted late in 2019 was exemplary and that he was a dark-horse MVP candidate for much of the following season.

A freak eye injury late in the truncated 2020 campaign derailed his performance and I believe it continued to impact him physically and/or mentally in ’21. The last two seasons have been outstanding and Happ’s playing under a three-year extension that pays him a very reasonable $20.6 million AAV through 2026. There’s just no reasonable angle from which he can be viewed as anything other than a very solid player, and it’s completely asinine to label him as mediocre or worse.

To be very clear, I’m not saying Happ is a superstar or anything like that. But he is a very good everyday outfielder who catches more flak for what he’s not than praise for what he is.

Ed. note: How much you wanna bet someone says Happ’s numbers are only good because of what he’s done against the Reds?

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