LOS ANGELES – As is generally the case, the All-Star Game is a mixture of the games biggest superstars and some players having, sometimes surprisingly, career years. In the case of Cubs left fielder Ian Happ, it’s the culmination of a journey.
Happ was the first-round pick of the Cubs in 2015. That was the year, you’ll recall, that they broke through after a long and radical rebuild and made it to the NLCS. Happ moved through the minors quickly and made his MLB debut in 2017. He hit 24 homers in just 364 at-bats as a rookie, helping the team win the NL Central again. From a first-rounder to 24 bombs as a rookie in two years is a pretty decent foundation for an All-Star, but Happ’s route was circuitous.
He appeared in 142 games in 2018, too, but he regressed. He only homered 15 times. He struck out 167 times in 387 at-bats. He only hit .233 with a .408 slugging. According to most metrics, he was a poor defender.
Still, Happ has good makeup, can play multiple positions, has good power and was only 23 years old. There was every reason to believe he’d be an important part of the Cubs’ future.
Then 2019 happened. Specifically, at the tail end of spring training, he was surprisingly demoted. He spent 99 games with Triple-A Iowa before making it back to the bigs in late July. For Happ, the most important part of 2019 wasn’t his time in the minors. It was getting regular playing time with the Cubs toward the end of the season.
“I think going down is really challenging,” he said. “There’s only certain things that you can learn at the major-league level. Until you come up and fail at the big-league level and understand why and then learn how to turn it into success. It’s really hard to make that jump. The biggest part of that year, 2019, was being able to play every day once we weren’t in the playoffs — the last two weeks when we got knocked out. Getting to play everyday and put the last two weeks together everyday in the big leagues was the best part of the year.”
He closed the season on a tear. In his last eight games, Happ hit .480/.519/1.200 with five homers and 12 RBI in 27 plate appearances.
His growth as a player has continued into this season, which appears to be his career year. He’s slashing .282/.367/.445 (127 OPS+) with 2.9 WAR, crushing his previous career-high of 1.6, which happened last season.
Happ was emotional when he learned he made the All-Star team — he was wiping away tears on the Cubs’ broadcast — and it’s a journey that includes a demotion that makes him appreciate his time in the majors just a little bit more than before.
“It’s completely and totally different so when you get back you appreciate everything, appreciate the little things including playing with teammates that you’ve known for years,” he said.
Happ might have new teammates soon, however. The rebuilding Cubs undertook a big sell-off last July and this time around there are rumors they’ll look to trade their two All-Stars, Happ and Willson Contreras.
If he does take his talents elsewhere, Happ’s new team would be getting a much better and much more polished product than the pre-2019 version of Happ. He’s an All-Star now with great perspective.