There is no singular reason for Ian Happ’s transformation into an All-Star.
The work he put in over the last year culminated in him being named an All-Star for the first time, a reward for bouncing back from a first half that was so poor in 2021 that it raised significant questions about Happ’s future in Chicago.
Happ debuted two years after the Cubs made him the No. 9 pick in the 2015 draft, leading to a lot of his learning coming at the big-league level surrounded by players who won a World Series together. Happ has weathered the ups and downs over the last six years, including being optioned to Triple-A Iowa at the start of the 2019 season, to turn himself into an All-Star.
When breaking down Happ’s 2022 offensive turnaround, three areas stand out.
1. Success from the right side versus left-handed pitchers
Happ’s struggles against left-handers were so pronounced last season that the switch-hitter essentially was neutralized as a viable lefty-only bat.
Happ produced a .213/.301/.352 slash line and 30.4% strikeout rate in 125 plate appearances from the right side in 2021. Those struggles, though, didn’t prompt him to reconsider whether he should solely focus on hitting left-handed because it wasn’t going to help him get more at-bats.
“Being a left-on-left guy in this league wasn’t going to help that,” Happ told the Tribune. “The guys that have done that successfully are usually guys who are either in a position where they’re defense first and they are going to be in there no matter what or they’re on a team that tells them, like, hey, no matter what you’re going to get at-bats.
“I had a strong belief in myself right-handed, but flipping that around wasn’t going to change what was happening.”
Happ knew he could be a good right-handed hitter, recalling success he experienced in his 2017 rookie season. But “outside things dictated whether I was going to play or not on the right side.”
“You put pressure on yourself to perform so that you’re in there, and that doesn’t work,” Happ said. “That’s not how you go out and perform at the big-league level.”
In 80 plate appearances as a right-handed hitter against lefties this season, Happ is hitting .347 with a .413 on-base percentage, .528 slugging percentage and .940 OPS. That production exceeds even his current left-handed numbers.
Happ credits the time and effort he put into his right-handed swing dating to the final two months last year, when he became a regular in the lineup regardless of pitching matchups. He took on a more relaxed attitude, knowing he could let go and get back to the basics without worrying about how it might affect his playing time. Happ described the adjustments to his right-handed swing and finding extended success with it as “one of the things I’m most proud of and the maturation of where I am now.”
Hitting coach Greg Brown attributes Happ’s right-handed production to improving how he gathers his body the same way as he does when batting from the left side. Brown thought Happ’s left side had a better feel in putting him in the right swing process to go from his loading position to gathering and then separating. It has become a focal point of Happ’s work with his right-handed swing.
“His work is very deliberate that way, and so to his credit, he took a nugget and then ran with it and has built consistency in his swing,” Brown told the Tribune. “And that’s really what this whole thing is about day in and day out.
“He’s really been the staple of our offense as far as consistency on both sides of the plate. He’s given us good at-bat after good at-bat, so I’m really proud of him.”
2. Significantly cutting down on strikeouts
Good things happen when players make contact. Coming off his highest K% since 2018, Happ needed to change something.
Barrel accuracy and strike-zone discipline have played a big part in Happ’s reduced strikeout rate. His K% sits 8.3% lower than last season and at 20.9% represents the best mark of his career. Fewer whiffs against fastballs helps too, lowering it nearly 5% from 2021 and nearly 9% from 2020. Pitchers have not been able to use it as a putaway pitch as they had in the past.
“When you’re hunting and you’re on the right pitches, you end the at-bat,” Brown explained. “So when we’re chasing or when we’re not really focused on a specific area, we ended up extending at-bats, like just missing pitches. He’s done a really good job of putting balls in play and putting balls in play hard.
“We’ve seen that he had knowledge of the strike zone and now he’s done a much better job at covering the high pitch.”
Happ believes his improved strikeout rate stems from a combination of factors: attitude, experience, better understanding of how pitchers are attacking him and visual training. Happ reached out to Tommy La Stella in the offseason to discuss his former teammate’s visual-training regimen. Happ used one while playing at the University of Cincinnati, which had a vision-training program.
“It was always something that I thought about but never found or knew the right person,” Happ said. “That’s something that I feel like has definitely contributed.”
The vision training features a combination of drills involving tracking balls and hand-eye coordination. Happ utilized an offseason program that carried into the season.
“I’ve always felt like it’s an underappreciated underworked part of the game,” Happ said. “There’s times in my career that I felt mechanically I’m right on but something’s letting me down. So to address that and think that, hey, I can get a little bit better visually, I’ll be able to make contact or square up some of those balls that I was just missing.”
3. Locked in on the mental side of the game
Slumps and 0-fers can grind down any player. Learning how to work through them is imperative to major-league success and consistency.
Brown lauded Happ’s “tremendous” mental game and ability to focus.
“He’s somebody that takes a lot of pride in preparation and does a ton of deliberate work of how he’s going to be attacked and how he wants to attack (the pitcher),” Brown said.
Happ says his mental focus has developed over the years, but the root of it can be traced to his childhood. Former Reds three-time All-Star Sean Casey was a mentor to Happ and spoke often of the mental side of the game and its importance in getting through a 162-game season.
“It’s one thing to be locked on your at-bats and what you’re doing, and the other part of it is the in-between and how you deal with the 0-for-4s and 0-for-5s, a couple bad at-bats and coming back and putting it all together,” Happ said. “That’s been a huge emphasis of mine in the last 12 months and something that playing every day has definitely helped with, but it’s been a process.”
Maintaining self-confidence and believing mini-slumps aren’t permanent or going to derail a season are part of the process. Players rely on different methods to work through those moments. Some journal, others such as Happ talk through it. He says it has been very important to his mindset.
“I set up a separate system to be able to do that, to have those conversations to talk through your feelings,” Happ said. “That stuff is real, and you have to deal with it every single day and you have to be open about it and talk through it.”