Ian Happ Flipped the Script

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Last January, inspired by Cedric Mullins’s 2021 decision to stop switch-hitting, I tried to identify other switch-hitters who might benefit from swinging from one side or the other. Going beyond simply calculating the largest platoon splits, I relied on handedness splits for some of the players’ key underlying batted ball and plate discipline metrics. The idea was that there could be a path to improvement if these switch-hitters eliminated their severe underperformance from one side of the plate. Of course, the other option is simply to work on their weaker swing and become a better overall switch-hitter.

One of the batters I identified as a candidate to hit left-handed full-time was Ian Happ. Through 2021, Happ had posted a 55 point platoon split, the second-highest among the 25 switch-hitters in the sample. Happ crushes right-handed pitching from the left side, but all of his batted ball peripherals are significantly weaker when swinging from the right. Instead of taking my advice (thank goodness), Happ posted the best season of his career against left-handed pitching in 2022:

Ian Happ, Career Platoon Splits
Year wOBA vs R wOBA vs L Split
2017 .357 .326 .031
2018 .348 .274 .074
2019 .381 .321 .060
2020 .385 .322 .063
2021 .340 .289 .051
2022 .338 .345 -.007
Career .351 .311 .040

For the first time in his career, Happ’s platoon split leaned towards left-handed pitching. That dramatic change in fortunes helped him secure his first All-Star appearance and a career-high 3.5 WAR. He also brought home a Gold Glove for his solid defensive efforts in left field. A single position in the field and the disappearance of his platoon split allowed him to handle a full-time role and gave him plenty of consistency in 2022.

Happ’s improvement against left-handed pitching took place over just 137 plate appearances, so it’s fair to wonder whether his strides are sustainable moving forward. Still, it’s worthwhile to dig in and see exactly what led to this turnaround. Using the same method as before, here are Happ’s handedness splits against lefties from last season alongside his career splits through 2021:

Ian Happ, Left-Handed Batting Splits
Avg Exit Velocity Barrel% Hard Hit% GB% xwOBAcon Chase% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Career 89.3 10.4% 41.1% 45.0% .413 24.4% 74.3% 15.0%
2017–21 85.4 5.4% 32.3% 46.7% .359 26.9% 75.5% 16.2%
Z-Scores -1.77 -1.13 -1.21 -0.25 -0.97 -0.45 0.23 -0.35
2022 88.5 4.4% 41.8% 56.5% .325 32.1% 77.7% 14.4%
Z-Scores -0.36 -1.36 0.10 -1.70 -1.59 -1.37 0.64 0.17

While he didn’t exhibit breakthroughs across the board, Happ did make significant gains in his average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, zone contact rate, and swinging strike rate. The improvement in hard-hit rate was particularly encouraging, as it took that metric from well below league average to above average and right in line with his overall career rate. He did see a big increase in the number of groundballs he put in play as a right-handed batter, which probably explains why his expected wOBA on contact fell by 34 points. Happ’s BABIP against left-handers was an abnormally high .425, likely the result of all those additional hard hit groundballs. As for his plate discipline, the improvements in his contact and swinging strike rates largely offset the decline in chase rate he experienced last year.

Working on his right-handed swing was a point of emphasis for Happ last offseason. In an April interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he explained the differences between his two swings, saying, “My hands work a little bit better right-handed as far as controlling the barrel, but my [bat] path is better lefty to get the ball in the air.” That’s certainly borne out by the data; he’s always been able to post gaudy power numbers as a left-handed batter. Because he simply doesn’t see as many left-handed pitchers throughout a season, he’s struggled with consistency from that side of the plate and has seemed lost when trying to make the right adjustments.

While that offseason work paid off from one side of the plate, Happ struggled uncharacteristically as a left-handed batter in 2022. His wOBA against right-handed pitching was the lowest of his career, which is a big reason why his gains against southpaws didn’t result in a monster year offensively. Here are Happ’s handedness splits against righties from last season alongside his career splits through 2021:

Ian Happ, Left-Handed Batting Splits
Avg Exit Velocity Barrel% Hard Hit% GB% xwOBAcon Chase% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Career 89.3 10.4% 41.1% 45.0% .413 24.4% 74.3% 15.0%
2017–21 90.5 14.3% 44.5% 42.9% .458 22.6% 74.2% 15.5%
Z-Scores 0.55 0.89 0.47 0.31 0.81 0.32 -0.02 -0.15
2022 89.9 7.2% 40.0% 44.9% .368 26.2% 80.0% 13.0%
Z-Scores 0.27 -0.73 -0.15 0.01 -0.81 -0.32 1.08 0.58

The power that had been such a big part of his approach from that side of the plate suddenly dried up last year. He saw a significant drop in his barrel rate, and the combination of a slight drop in his hard-hit rate and a higher groundball rate resulted in a 90 point drop in his expected wOBA on contact.

As he did from the right-side, Happ enjoyed improvements to his zone contact rate and swinging strike rate as a lefty. In fact, those two metrics might hold the key to understanding what happened to his left-handed swing. Not only did he make adjustments to his swing during the offseason, he also changed his approach at the plate. He was far more aggressive from both sides of the plate in 2022, with a five point rise in his overall swing rate and a higher in-zone swing and chase rates accompanying it. However, he also managed career bests in his overall contact and swinging strike rates. All those additional swings resulted in more contact, even if the quality of the contact wasn’t as good as it had been in the past. That led to a career-low strikeout rate, though the benefit of all those extra balls in play was capped because they weren’t flying over the fence as often.

Even though Happ’s power numbers cratered a bit — his isolated power fell to a career-low .169 — he still managed a 120 wRC+ on the season. Putting more balls in play, reducing his strikeout rate, and evening out his platoon splits still made for a pretty productive 2022. Still, as if the drop in power output wasn’t concerning enough, Happ outperformed all of his expected stats last year too; he beat his expected slugging percentage by 61 points, and his batting average and wOBA were 32 and 33 points ahead of expectation, respectively. Even though his BABIP was abnormally high as a right-handed batter, it was fairly normal as a lefty; it just happened that most of the balls he put in play found a way to drop despite their physical characteristics off the bat seemingly indicating otherwise.

The trick, then, will be to try to find a happy medium where Happ is able to keep his contact rate up while still accessing the power in his swing that he’s displayed before. If getting more aggressive and focusing on putting the ball in play helped his right-handed swing, he’ll need to figure out how to adjust his approach based on the handedness of the pitcher he’s facing. That might be too tall a task considering his previous struggles against left-handed pitching. Still, if Happ is committed to being the best switch-hitter he can be, he’s now shown he can be successful from both sides of the plate during a season. He just has to figure out how to put all the best pieces of his two swings together into a unified approach.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

Great article – I wonder if given the sacrifices he made as an LHB, it still would make more sense to switch to that side full time unless further adjustments show that he can combine the best parts of both swings