Let’s talk about Ian Happ, an underrated fantasy player heading into 2018


Tim Spyers (AP)

The amount of young, MLB-ready talent flowing from the North Side of Chicago over the last three years is a bit overwhelming. Kris Bryant, Wilson Contreras, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez headline an impressive list of names coming out of the Cubs’ minor league system in recent seasons. With so much young talent stealing the headlines it’s easy for certain players to get lost in the shuffle. Ian Happ, despite a strong prospect pedigree and successful professional numbers, is one such player. He’s currently sporting an ADP of 146 according to FantasyPros, which puts him as a 12th to 15th round value depending on league size. Happ, a good bet for 35 home runs and 10 steals with potentially solid run and RBI figures, and additional upside beyond that, is a must-own at that value.

Coming up through the system

The 23-year old Pittsburgh native was picked 9th overall by Chicago in the 2015 MLB draft and immediately acquitted himself to minor league scene, posting an 822 OPS across low-A and A-ball in 2015 with nine home runs in only 251 at bats in pitcher-friendly environments. Happ continued his success in high-A and AA the following year, with an 810 OPS and 15 home runs in similar offense-suppressing ballparks.

Happ’s draft status and early minor league success earned him some fanfare prior to the 2017 season, when Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 54th best prospect in the game. His stock rose even further a month into the year as he blew the doors off AAA pitching, smacking nine home runs in 116 plate appearances with a 615 slugging rate and 144 wRC+. Despite a crowded roster at the MLB level, Happ forced the Cubs’ hand and received a call-up in mid-May.

One of the reasons the 6’3″, 205lbs Happ earned a promotion is his versatility. Happ took significant reps at second base and all the outfield positions in the minors, putting him in position to slide into a Chicago lineup that looked different nearly every day last year. He could move around positions within games, or start at multiple positions in the same series. This versatility is also valuable in fantasy, since Happ heads into 2018 with second base, left field and center field eligibility in ESPN fantasy formats.

Once in the majors Happ didn’t look back. He parlayed his versatility and power bat into a valuable piece on Chicago’s roster, ending the season with 62 runs, 24 home runs, 68 RBIs, eight steals and an 842 OPS in 413 plate appearances. The switch-hitter displayed serious power, with a 261 isolated slugging percentage that ranked first on the Cubs, above names like Rizzo, Bryant and Schwarber. On top of that, Happ finished in the top 20 in baseball with a barrel on 13.3% of his batted balls, a similar figure to players like Freeman, Donaldson and Trout.

Light tower power

Happ’s calling card is his power. His 24 home runs in an abbreviated MLB year extrapolates to over 35 in a full season. He did that at 22 years old, an age where most hitters are still getting acclimated to the high minors.

Despite throwing right, Happ is a switch-hitting batter who takes his best hacks from the left side of the plate. I’m no expert on swing mechanics, but Happ has one of the sweetest lefty swings in baseball. Take a look at this home run from 2017 Spring Training. Or this one from this year’s Spring Training. He has an upright stance and brings the bat around in a violent, round-house type fashion that unleashes fury on the baseball. It’s a sight to see.

Happ’s HR/FB rate of 25.3% last year seems a bit elevated on the surface, but given his barrel proclivity and surplus medium and hard contact I wouldn’t expect much of a drop off this year. Nearly 40% of Happ’s batted balls were of the flyball variety, and over 30% of his flyballs were pulled, which is a good sign for maintaining an above average HR/FB rate. Happ has the frame, the swing and the historical production to allow me to comfortably project 35 home runs over a full season, which is plus production from anywhere in your lineup, particularly second base.

Don’t forget about that speed

But 35 home runs isn’t what it used to be. 18 players hit that mark last year and far more would have hit it if not for injury or time in the minors. For a player like Happ, who will likely drag on batting average, to provide value they need to produce in other categories. Fortunately Happ has the ability to swipe double digit bases, which, when combined with 35 home runs, begins to form a very intriguing fantasy player.

Happ had eight steals in 12 attempts in his MLB time last season, which projects to 10-12 over a fuller complements of at bats. That wasn’t a one-off thing either, as Happ stole 28 bases in less than 240 minor league games from 2015 to 2017, which is an average of about 18 per 150 game season.

Happ’s sprint speed, as calculated by StatCast, also supports the idea that he is a player capable of swiping double digit bags at the MLB level. He was 35th in the MLB with sprint speed of 28.5ft/sec, sandwiched in between Wil Myers and Andrew McCutchen and even besting Mike Trout! Based on Happ’s minor league steal figures, combined with his major league steal success and overall athletic ability, 10+ steals is easily within reach.

What else is there to know?

Happ crossed home plate 62 times last season and knocked in 68 runs in 413 plate appearances. While we need to be careful projecting run and RBI totals, stats heavily influenced by batting order placement and luck, those figures extrapolate to 93 runs and 102 RBIs in 630 plate appearances. I wouldn’t feel comfortable projecting that performance over a full season in 2018, but given Happ’s power and the offensive ability of his teammates 180 R+RBI is a reasonable expectation.

One issue that Happ struggled with in 2017 was strikeouts. He K’d in 31.2% of his plate appearances and backed that up with a 16.1% swinging strike rate, which was top 10 in baseball. Like a lot of young players, Happ struggled with off-speed pitches, with swinging strike rates above 25% on both sliders and curveballs. Given Happ’s scythe-like swing, I’m not surprised he has issues with contact at times. But on the positive side, Happ never had a strikeout rate about 23.6% in the minors, so I suspect we’ll see the strikeout rate decline below 30% this season, which will help his entire stat-line.

Another concern with Happ is playing time. There’s a lot of language to this point about “extrapolation”, “projection” and “full season”. So we need to ask ourselves: will Happ get over 600 plate appearances on a very crowded Cubs’ roster in 2018? I think he will. Happ’s call-up from the minors last year came after the Cubs had already played 34 games, or 20% of their season. 413 plate appearances over 80% of the season is ~515 over a full year, so it’s not as if Happ was a part-time player last year. He was basically out of the lineup once per week on average after getting called up.

Happ’s competition for playing time mainly consists of Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist and Jayson Heyward. While Baez is a strong young player, he also has a significant platoon split that will prevent him from getting full-time at bats against right-handed pitching. Zobrist has had injury issues this spring and is coming off a career-worst season with a pedestrian 82 wRC+. On top of that Zobrist will turn 37 in June, so one has to wonder just how much time has has left. In terms of Heyward, I don’t know if he’s an MLB-quality hitter any more. He has a wRC+ below 80 in two full seasons with Chicago. While Cubs manager Joe Maddon loves veteran presence and versatility, competition will be stiff in the NL Central this season and something is going to give way if Heyward continues hitting the way he is.

What’s Happ-ening now?

As the cherry on top of my pro-Happ analysis, I’d like to point to his performance this spring. Happ has four home runs and two doubles in 23 plate appearances thus far.  The rate stats are gaudy – 500 OBP, 1.190 SLG and 1.690 OPS. Perhaps most impressively, he only has four strikeouts and a 17.3% strikeout rate. While the sample size is small and we’re only half-way through spring, this type of start from a player with Happ’s ability should turn heads. And, at the very least, it sets the expectation that he should open the MLB season as an everyday player.

A 90 run / 35 home run / 90 RBI / 10 steal / 260 average season is very much in reach for Happ if he can get to 600 plate appearances. He also has the potential to do even more if he can cut down the strikeouts. Take him in the 10th round and take that production, along with his positional flexibility, to the bank.


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