Bernstein: Cubs' Tough Call Helped Ian Happ

He might not have embraced a sojourn to Triple-A, but Happ benefited from it.

Dan Bernstein
August 12, 2019 - 1:24 pm

(670 The Score) It was some tough love from the Cubs, sending infielder/outfielder Ian Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the outset of the season in a move that reportedly elicited a strong negative reaction from a player who felt he had proved enough to avoid such a fate.

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But president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stood by his decision and now may be reaping the rewards of a player remodeled for success. In his 46 plate appearances in 16 games since rejoining the big league club, the switch-hitting Happ is slashing .300/.391/.640 with three home runs and a robust 164 wRC+. He has posted a wRC+ of 155 as a lefty and 191 batting right-handed, early evidence that his work in the minor leagues is paying dividends.

Happ has been reticent to go into detail about his work, regularly noting that it was his bosses' idea for him to be there, not sounding as if he was entirely in lock-step with the plan even now at its conclusion. But the point is that such buy-in wasn't needed. He still did the work and apparently is benefiting.

"You can take a small step back for a big step forward," Epstein told the Bernstein and McKnight Show on 670 The Score last Thursday. "It does not require the player involved to embrace it or be happy about it at all times."

Happ admits to being on the tightly wound end of the emotional range, unable to evince positive exuberance without leaving himself exposed to to some low lows during struggles. So it's a fool's errand to read his on-field expressions to determine if this performance is any vindication, a signal to the club that he should've been here the whole time. He may never have wanted a sojourn in Des Moines, but Epstein truly believes it was right for all involved.

"You're not going to get many competitors to say, 'Oh yeah, I needed to go down to triple-A for four months to work on some things,'" Epstein said. "I'm sure in Ian Happ's mind, we overreacted. He's not going to agree with our assessment, and he feels he probably could have worked things out up here at the big league level. I respect that. It's also my job to make a decision, and I felt it was the best thing for the club and the best thing for Ian Happ for him to go down and work on some important things in an environment that was best suited for his development."

One of those things was cutting down on strikeouts, and the early returns are encouraging. Happ's 21.7 percent strikeout rate is significantly below his career mark of  33.2 and a far cry from the alarming 36.1 in 2018, while his walk rate remains at 13 percent, still holding above a career rate of 12.5.

This is still a small sample, but Happ's return was also based on a larger data set that was observed as he improved in Iowa.​ So far, so good.

"No one is declaring victory or anything," Epstein said. "Whether he's ready to acknowledge it or not, he certainly got better, has come up here and given the team a real boost."

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.