Sunday Notes: Happ on Hitting, Cash on Jeter, Mackanin, Montgomery, more

Ian Happ made his MLB debut with the Cubs yesterday. He did so as a right fielder, which is one of four positions he’s played since Chicago drafted him ninth overall in 2015 out of the University of Cincinnati. But while versatility is handy, Happ’s bat is his calling card. The 22-year-old switch-hitter can mash.

Happ’s rapid ascent to the big leagues took him through Iowa, where he was slashing .298/.362/.615, with nine home runs, at the time of his call-up. And while he profiles more as a doubles machine than he does a home-run champion, his bombs aren’t anomalies. He has pop, and his approach is all about loft.

“I’m trying to hit balls in the air to center field,” explained Happ, who left the yard in his fourth big-league plate appearance. “If you get the ball in the air, you give yourself a chance to find some green and get on base. Ground balls are out. The instruction guys talk about trying to elevate, in order to produce. Your slugging percentage is in the air. You don’t slug on the ground.”

Happ doesn’t feel he’s markedly changed his approach, although he acknowledged that hitting the ball in the air wasn’t prioritized at the collegiate level. All in all, he’s pleased with how the Cubs organization has approached his development.

“They did a pretty good job of seeing me play before they started tweaking anything,” said Happ. “I’ve been pretty fortunate with the hitting guys I’ve gotten to work with here. You kind of learn yourself in your first full season of pro ball, and you continue to make adjustments to tighten up your swing. Everything is based around producing those fly balls, producing backspin in the gaps to center field.”

Happ started switch-hitting when he was eight years old, and he’s still refining his stroke. That’s particularly true from the side where he doesn’t get as many game reps.

‘Right-handed I have to be more in my posture,” Happ told me in our spring conversation. “I have to really try to hit the ball to right-center, and I have to really fight to get the ball in the air. Lefty, it’s more natural. It’s a more natural path to get the ball up in the air, so I’m just out there trying to hit balls hard, straight to center field.”

More specifically, he’s trying to hit them hard with loft. The reason is simple.

“I have the ability to hit the ball out of the park,” said Happ. “That’s why I’m trying to elevate baseballs. Slugging matters.”

———

Earlier this spring, I asked Pittsburgh’s Dave Jauss for his opinion on what might be referred to as ‘the launch angle revolution.’ According to the longtime coach, trying to drive balls in the air is nothing new.

“Nobody has ever wanted to hit the ball on the ground,” said Jauss. “Not unless they’re moving a runner or it’s a hit-and-run. Hitters have always wanted to get the ball on a line, or in the air. No hitting coach has ever taught ground balls. Ground balls are outs.

“The definition of the swing path hasn’t changed. How to get to that swing path maybe has, but as far as the swing path itself — to hit the ball on a line, to drive the ball to the gap, to keep the ball off the ground — has been the same for 40 years. Longer than 40 years. Forever.”

———

Pete Mackanin has his own ideas on swing paths and launch angles. Here is what he told me in late March:

“What I see as a big flaw in many hitters is belt-high fastballs, which are mistake by pitchers,” said the Phillies manager. “They don’t get on top of it. They start their swing from underneath and go up to it, so they have a smaller chance to hit it perfectly.

“I read a quote by Mickey Mantle. He said every swing you take should be horizontal to the ground. That makes sense, because you want a flat path to the ball. My way of thinking is that you should start at the top of the strike zone and work your way down through the zone. What happens is, with your stride, you’re not actually swinging down. With your stride, your bat levels out.

“Ultimately, what matters is that you’re in the right position when you’re ready to launch. Michael Saunders has a real dip in his swing — he’s got that wrap — but hitters are different. We have another guy — I won’t mention his name — who has a little wrap to his bat. It’s part of his swing, and he doesn’t get it out of the way soon enough.”

Which player was Mackanin referring to? I don’t know the answer to that question, but people who watch the team on a regular basis may have a good idea. What do you think, Phillies fans?

——

Logan Morrison got what he was looking for when he faced Chris Sale in the second inning of yesterday’s game at Fenway Park. His plan was to, “Sit on a changeup and hope you don’t swing at a fastball.” It worked out well. He got a changeup out over the plate, and deposited it into the visiting bullpen for his 10th home run of the season.

In his second at bat against Sale, he had a different plan. This time he was sitting on a slider. It didn’t work out well. He got a fastball in, and struck out swinging.

The Tampa Bay slugger felt it was necessary to sit on pitches against the overpowering southpaw.

“With his slider going away from me, and being 76 MPH, and his fastball being 95, you have to pick one or the other,” opined Morrison. “And you have to pick the right one. The one that starts at you, and might hit you, is the one you have to swing at. It’s tough to pull the trigger on, sometimes.”

———

Jordan Montgomery is a mover, but he isn’t much of a shaker. The 24-year-old lefty is rapidly establishing himself in the Yankees rotation with a five-pitch mix, and he’s letting his catchers determine how they’re allocated. According to the rookie, he only nods sideways “once or twice a game.”

Kyle Higashioka, who has caught Montgomery in both the minors and in New York, concurs with that claim. He’s confident calling for anything in his array, which he considers one of the southpaw’s greatest assets.

“The more pitches you have, the more hitters have to think about,” observed Higashioka. “Especially if you have two fastballs that don’t look the same, which he does. Having options gets you out of a hole a lot better.”

As Eno Sarris wrote a few days ago, the southpaw’s best options are probably his four-seamer and his slider. The latter is a pitch he didn’t throw at the University of South Carolina. Back in his Gamecock days, Montgomery was “basically fastball-changeup.” Another difference is the consistency of his delivery. Montgomery explained that he’s always been over the top, but he “leaked a lot more in college.”

Higashioka has had a battery-mate’s view since 2015, Montgomery’s first full season of pro ball.

“He’s always had good stuff, but the command has gotten better every single year, and the slider has gotten better,” proclaimed Higashioka. “That’s what’s propelled him to the big leagues.”

———

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash spent part of the 2009 season as a backup catcher for the New York Yankees, which means he got to play with Derek Jeter. His appreciation for having done so was apparent when he was asked about the now-retired icon.

“(Iconic) is a good word for him,” Cash told a small group of reporters yesterday. “When you’re in the dugout, or in the clubhouse with him, you don’t feel that way. He’d go out of his way to make his teammates feel like you’re equal to him, even though you’re obviously not. He’s a special player to get to play with — one of the few you’d sit down at the end of your career and say, ‘I got to play with Derek Jeter.’”

———

MAY TIDBITS

At 24-11, the Houston Astros are off to their best 35-game start in franchise history. The previous record of 23-12 was set in 1972 and 1999.

The Dodgers win over Colorado last night gave them 99 wins at Coors Field, the most by any visiting team.

Buster Posey’s home run in the 17th inning on Friday night was the latest
inning for a walk-off home run in San Francisco Giants history. Previously, Willie Mays homered in the 16th inning, on July 2, 1963, to give the Giants a 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn both threw complete games that day.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, Michael Fulmer’s 2.94 ERA through 33 starts is the fifth lowest by a pitcher who started his career with the Detroit Tigers. Mark Fidrych (2.30), Bernie Boland (2.74), Virgil Trucks (2.87) and Dave Rozema (2.93) each had a lower ERA through 33 starts.

Hoy Jun Park, a 21-year-old shortstop for the Charleston River Dogs, ranks third in the low-A South Atlantic League in OBP (.423) and fifth in batting average (.336). The left-handed-hitting native of Seoul, South Korea is slugging .514.

Alex Jackson, whom the Atlanta Braves acquired from the Seattle Mariners over the offseason, leads the high-A Florida State League in home runs (10) and total bases (85). The 21-year-old former first-round pick is slashing .303/.357/.599 with the Florida Fire Frogs.

———

Ryan Boldt isn’t about to blame a cold-weather upbringing for his slow start in pro ball. The way he sees it, growing up in Red Wing, Minnesota was a positive as much as a negative.

“Not being able to play throughout the whole year maybe impacted me a little bit, but I don’t think it hurt me,” opined Boldt, who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the third round last year out of the University of Nebraska. “I played basketball in high school, as well, so when the basketball season rolled around, I turned off the baseball switch and just focused on that. It was kind of nice to have that time to get away and kind of reset my mind for baseball stuff.”

Boldt played on the travel circuit, and he faced good competition as a Cornhusker, so it’s not as though he reached pro ball unprepared to face quality pitching. Even so, he logged a .537 OPS with short-season Hudson Valley. According to the 22-year-old outfielder, his struggles were mostly a matter of acclimation.

“Getting used to playing every day was the toughest transition,” Boldt told me late in spring training. “I was a little tired, mentally and physically, after my college year, and coming to the ballpark every day with a fresh mind was a challenge. One of my biggest goals for this season this is to be more consistent.”

The native Minnesotan is working toward that goal two levels higher than where he played last year. Playing for the high-A Charlotte Stone Crabs, Boldt is batting .244/.295/.353, he’s a perfect six-for-six in stolen base attempts, and he leads the club with 24 RBI.

———

Last Sunday’s column included a few Ron Santo memories, courtesy of Tim Neverett. The Red Sox broadcaster had gotten to know the Cubs legend back when he was calling games for the Pirates.

This week we get a Neverett story from his days as the radio play-by-play voice of the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s. It happened in either 2005 or 2006, during a road series in Albuquerque.

Steve Yeager was one of our coaches, and he was real old-school,” Neverett told me. “Steve smoked like a chimney. He’d missed the van over to the ballpark, and I had a rental car, so he asked me, ‘You going over?’ This was in the hotel lobby. I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’ll ride with you.’ I said, ‘Great.’

“He refused to put his seat belt on, so the whole ride, you’re hearing ding, ding, ding. And he’s got his window closed, with a lit butt. I opened my window the whole way. He’s talking the whole time, oblivious to what’s going on around him. Again, the alarm is going non-stop — ding, ding, ding. I finally said, ‘Are you going to put your seat belt on?’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Are you going to put your seat belt on?’ He said, ‘Nah.’ Then he continued with his story.

“It was a short ride to the ballpark, but it was the longest short ride I’ve ever had.”

———

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Writing for Detroit Athletic Co., Dan Holmes put together Baseball’s All-Time Mexican-Born Team.

Zach James of the Clinton (Iowa) Herald wrote about how 18-year-old Toronto Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is making a splash in the Midwest League.

Mark Kiszila of The Denver Post thinks he knows the secret behind the best start in Rockies history. It involves Jedi mind tricks.

Over at Viva El Birdos, John J. Fleming wrote about how remarkably clutch Mike Matheny was during his playing career, and the impact that might have on his managerial style.

Sticking with the Cardinals, Ben Frederickson of The St. Louis Post Dispatch weighed in on the team’s official Twitter account having stated,“You love baseball, she loves jewelry.”

At MLB.com, Lindsay Berra wrote about 22-year-old Emma Charlesworth-Seiler, who is about to become professional baseball’s newest female umpire.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Since the beginning of last season, Andrew Miller has a record of 12-1, a dozen saves, and a 1.19 ERA. He’s allowed 50 hits, and struck out 145, in 91 innings.

From 1962-1964, Dick Radatz had a 2.17 ERA in 207 appearances out of the Red Sox bullpen. He logged 40 wins and 78 saves, and struck out 487 batters in 414 innings.

Mickey Mantle and Bob Allison went a combined 3 for 41, with 27 strikeouts, in their careers against Dick Radatz.

In 1963, Harmon Killebrew had 45 HR and 96 RBI. In 1985, Tom Herr had 8 HR and 110 RBI.

Per Rotoworld’s Matthew Pouliot, Justin Smoak’s .225 career batting average (as of earlier this week) is the lowest among first baseman with at last 3,000 plate appearances since 1901.

Mother Watson and Pop Corkhill played for the 1887 Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Kevin Steen, a 20-year-old prospect in the Red sox organization, was seriously injured in a car accident in late April. You can help his recovery by donating here.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe
5 years ago

David, I look forward to this article every week. Great way to start a Sunday morning. Thanks so much for your insights and anecdotes!

humanbeingbean
5 years ago

This is one of my favorite parts of Fangraphs as well. Nice, casual reading with a lot of interesting info.