In past seasons, Ian Happ may not have executed the diving and sliding plays he made Thursday with the same conviction.
“Just over the course of the year, as you get more and more of those, you get more comfortable with the read off the bat,” he said, “where you know you can give yourself a chance, and you’re making decisions based on game situation, based on, ‘OK, I can go after this ball and dive or slide, I know I can come up the last second, I know I can keep it in front of me and it’s not going to turn into a double.'”
It’s been clear from the way Happ has moved in left field this season, and even some of his defensive numbers, that he has been more comfortable defensively. But on Thursday, after Happ made two standout plays in the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Reds at Wrigley Field, manager David Ross took it a step further.
“I haven’t looked at the rest of the league, but it feels like he’s played some of the best defensive left field in the league for me,” Ross said. “Hopefully he’s starting to get into that gold-glove conversation.”
Happ is outspoken about his mistrust of most defensive stats, but in this case, several support Ross’ point.
Happ, who came up as a utility player but has consistently played left field this season, entered Thursday with a career-best 10 defensive runs saved in the outfield, according to FanGraphs. He ranked No.1 among qualified left-fielders in ultimate zone rating (7.1) – but No. 4 in UZR/150, behind Christian Yelich, Andrew Benintendi and Steven Kwan. He was also in the Top 3 in outs above average (1), behind Kwan and David Peralta.
How to best quantify defensive prowess is a fraught subject. But scoring high in defensive metrics helps a player’s Gold Glove case; 25 percent of the selection process goes to the sabermetrics community. Votes from managers and coaches account for the other 75 percent.
“It’d be really cool,” Happ said. “We still have a lot of baseball left, and you come to work every day and do your job, and then you look at that stuff at the end of the year. But honestly, that’s one of those honors that I thought about a lot as a kid – when I was playing shortstop, not as much as a left fielder. But it’d be really cool.”
Either way, days like Thursday are a reminder of the growth Happ’s shown in the field this season.
“A lot of character plays too, for him,” Ross said. “Just continues to stay in compete mode. The way he’s playing the game right now, there’s a lot of leadership qualities and how he’s setting the example day in and day out, an everyday player.”
The third inning began with Reds designated hitter Nick Senzel pulling a short line drive directly at Happ. Those are some of the hardest to read, and Happ froze momentarily to make sure the ball didn’t have enough carry to get behind him. Then, when he got the right angle to see its trajectory, he charged hard, diving in and rolling to secure the first out of the inning.
Later in the frame, with two outs, TJ Friedl hit a line drive into the left-field gap. Happ wanted to get his “eyes under it,” as he put it. Reaching down for a shoestring catch or diving horizontally would jostle his sightline. So, he slid to his left to make the inning-ending grab.
Starter Adrian Sampson, when asked about the plays Happ made behind him Thursday, quipped: “Just today? Nah, he’s been doing it all year.”