How Cubs’ Ian Happ is turning around a slow start at the plate

CINCINNATI — When Ian Happ and the Cubs’ hitting coaches examined his 2023 season heading into the winter, they identified a dip in his production against fastballs. Reversing that trend became an offseason project.

“Accomplished,” Happ said in a recent conversation with the Sun-Times, his inflection rising because there was a
“but” coming.

Entering Sunday, Happ was hitting .302 against fastballs, a significant jump from the year before. The problem was, success against the heater didn’t translate to overall improvement. After a strong first couple of weeks, Happ slid into a slump, caught in between on off-speed pitches — which had been a strength of his — and breaking balls.

In recent weeks, he has seemed to find a balance. And though he hit a bump in the road with an 0-for-11 streak in the first three games of the Cubs’ series against the Reds this weekend, he came out of it in a big way Sunday.

The Cubs avoided the series sweep with a 4-2 win, and Happ drove in three of those runs with a bases-clearing double. He also had two walks and two stolen bases, and he made a clutch assist in left field.

Look at Happ’s best season, when he was an All-Star in 2022. He hit .312 against fastballs — a career high for a full season. But last year, his batting average against fastballs (.233) was worse than against off-speed pitches (.298) and even breaking balls (.236), according to Statcast.

Those numbers made it clear what Happ’s offseason focus would be.

“And we saw that early on; he’s been crushing fastballs,” hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “Obviously, the league adjusts, right? They realize, hey, this guy didn’t hit fastballs great last year, let’s attack him with fastballs early in the year. He goes out and proves them wrong, handles the fastball. So now they’ve gone, really, to a heavy slider approach.”

The put-away slider to Happ’s back foot when he’s batting from the left side poses an extra challenge. But Happ doesn’t have to hit those pitches well to be successful.

“Not looking to put the sliders into the seats,” Kelly said. “But it’s like, OK, we’re swinging at the right ones and staying in the middle and driving those balls into gaps — because he has the ability to do that.”

Happ noticed progress in subtle moments — fouling off a two-strike slider just below the zone from Sonny Gray en route to a walk when the Cubs played the Cardinals two weeks ago. And he has had more obvious victories — putting a slider from Cardinals reliever Andrew Kittredge into the seats in the same game.

It was one of two home runs he hit that day, and over the next 10 games, he put up an impressive 1.088 OPS.

“I feel like the swing’s in a really good place,” he said during that stretch. “The difference of swinging and missing at off-speed in the zone, versus being able to at least salvage at-bats and foul those pitches off to get to something you want to hit, the at-bats have been a lot better that way.”

Happ hit a bit of a skid in Cincinnati, where he traditionally has put up eye-popping numbers. He entered the series with the highest slugging percentage (.731) of any visiting player with at least 45 games at Great American Ball Park.

Then on Sunday, his first-inning double — in tandem with a strong pitching performance — lifted the Cubs to a win. Again, Happ’s offseason work against the fastball paid off.

With the bases loaded, in a 3-2 count, he was expecting it from Reds starter Frankie Montas. Happ turned on the low and inside pitch, driving it into the right-field corner to give all three baserunners time to cross the plate standing up.

Latest on the Cubs
Notebook: Shortstop Dansby Swanson’s bat is heating up, and left-hander Jordan Wicks makes his first relief appearance.
Seiya Suzuki was also out of the lineup Saturday, but manager Craig Counsell said he was optimistic he would return in the next day or two.
The Cubs and Reds now have the same record at 31-33, tied for second in the National League Central.
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