I have to confess, I was pessimistic on Ian Happ entering this season. At the time he was drafted I liked the pick, I'm a big fan of polished bats in the first round, and who could argue the Front Office's process after the immediate success of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. Still, Happ underwhelmed me in his first exposure to pro ball. You hope for better than a .348 wOBA and 23.6% K% from your Top 10 college bat in Low A. Especially one like Happ who has questions about his future position and if he'll provide any defensive value. Visions of Eric Patterson danced in my head. With that in mind I didn't consider Happ in the top tier of Cubs prospects, and slotted him #9 when I put together a list to start the year.
A lot has changed since Happ's time at South Bend, and it's clear he's making adjustments in his first full professional season. To start with, Happ put up a .319/.443/.569 line good for a .457 wOBA in the first 3 weeks of the season. The strikeouts were still there though(22.7 K%) and foretold what happened next. Pitchers adjusted to Happ, and he slumped, to the tune of a .243/.357/.336 line with a .327 wOBA and 27.9% K% in the next 5 weeks. Emblematic of that struggle was just how Happ got strikeouts. In his hot start to the year, 13 of his 20 strikeouts were of the swinging variety (65%). In the slump that followed, 30 of 36 K's (83%) were swinging. Pitchers found a place they could attack Happ, and Happ couldn't stop them.
This story has a happy ending though, as Happ adjusted back to be better than ever. Since the start of June, Happ has an eye-popping .486 wOBA on a .396/.466/.631 line, and even better, only a 14.3% K%. He's simultaneously made a drastic improvement in K's and power without compromising walks, which is an incredibly promising combination for his future. All the more promising is that Happ was promoted to AA on June 23 and hasn't missed a beat, as his .505 wOBA and 10.5% K% in Tennessee demonstrates.
The three act play of Happ's 2016 to date is really illustrated in the graph below, charting his 15 game rolling average in K%, BB%, and IsoP.
You can see the spot where pitchers started attacking him differently and Happ didn't adjust. K's jumped up, power and walks went down. Then Happ started making his move, first taking more pitches out of the zone to force pitchers to come to him, and then punishing them when they did. All the while that rolling strikeout rate continued to tumble downward.
This version of Ian Happ doesn't have to stick around indefinitely for him to be useful, and evaluators are bearish enough on his swing that he'll probably always be a guy who strikes out closer to 20% of the time than 10%. What's important here is the ability to make a change to adapt and continue to produce at a high level. Happ has many more adjustments to make before he becomes a productive big leaguer, and now we can be a little more confident that he'll be able to make them.