After tearing down labels, Happ makes his mark with Cubs
Cubs center fielder Ian Happ knows all about labels. Once they're applied, it's difficult to get them unstuck.
Happ has known about the label on him going back to his days at the University of Cincinnati: He could hit, but he was a man without a position.
Fortunately, the Cubs did enough research and scouting to discover the label didn't stick, and they made him their first-round draft choice in 2015. That work is being rewarded now for all parties.
Cubs president Theo Epstein credits his staff for not getting stuck on the label.
"There was kind of a false narrative about Ian out there," Epstein said. "So our scouts did a great job of digging deeper. Daniel Carte, the area scout, really got to know him well and kind of saw through some of the labels that were floating around about him. Credit to Daniel Carte and Matt Dorey (amateur scouting director) for really going to bat for him."
When I asked Epstein to elaborate, he cited an unsettled situation at Cincinnati.
"I think some people just went by his body language out there," Epstein said. "It was a time of some change and turmoil at that program. So some of the players were in a tough position. You didn't necessarily come away from seeing that team or him play and think there was a lot of energy and a lot of focus there. So you had to get beyond what was going on over there at the time."
This year, Happ made his first opening-day roster with the Cubs, and he hit the first pitch of the major-league season out of the park in Miami.
Happ shies away from talking too much about his exploits, but he wasn't shy about going to bat for himself when it comes to his ability or his reputation.
"There were a lot of inaccurate narratives from the defensive side, that I was just a hitter and didn't have a position when I was actually playing all positions," he said. "I was a little bit unfortunate in my college career to have a coach (former Cincinnati coach Ty Neal) who didn't think I could play the infield, which hurt me, a coach that moved me to right field my junior year. That was tough.
"My college coach really perpetuated the narrative that I was a hitter only and didn't have a position. So that was big for me before the draft, to go out and show that I could do it, to go to a couple of workouts specifically that were in Chicago, take groundballs, run around the outfield and show that I was athletic.
Proving he also was fully recovered from a sports hernia that had limited his mobility was "huge," Happ said.
At spring training last year, Cubs manager Joe Maddon seemed pleasantly surprised by how much Happ could do.
"All it takes is for one coach to move you in one spot and say one thing to the wrong person and all the writers run with it," Happ said. "And it becomes a real stereotype thing. For me, it was always something that I was fighting for, to try to show that I could play multiple positions and show that I was an athlete.
"That was definitely a difficult part for me my last year, my college career when our new staff and that coach really didn't believe that I could play multiple positions and even took me out of the lineup a lot. I got stereotyped with having a bad reputation, just as not a team guy because of some of the stuff that he did. He thought I was selfish, and I hope that stereotype has been taken away."
Last year Happ played all three outfield positions as well as second and third base for the Cubs, who called him up from Class AAA Iowa on May 13. In his first game, at St. Louis, Happ homered for his first big-league hit.
Playing in 115 games, he compiled a line of .253/.328/.514 with 24 homers and 68 RBI. The 24 homers were the third most by a rookie in team history. He became the fastest player in franchise history to 20 homers, doing so in 89 games and surpassing Kyle Schwarber's 97-game mark.
The Cubs asked Happ to work hard this off-season, and they communicated the vision.
"We talked on the phone maybe three or four days after the season, and he was asking a lot of good questions," Epstein said. "He wanted to know, because he can do so many different things, what he should focus on -- second base, corner outfield, center field. I just recommended that he get into the most athletic shape he can be in, to get as quick as he could possibly be, as twitchy, because there could be real opportunity for him in center field.
"Once you're in that shape, you can move all over. Of course, he took it all to heart. He had a plan. It was already what he was planning on doing. He ran with it and had a great off-season."
In spring training, Happ won the center-field job as well as the leadoff spot, going 17-for-53 (.321) with 7 homers.
He appreciates how the Cubs stuck with him.
"There's a lot of credit to the Cubs staff, the front office and the scouting department to show that I could do it," he said. "I feel like I had a good spring, put a lot of good at-bats together and got myself ready for the season."
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