Joe Maddon on Ian Happ: ‘Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen’

Joe Maddon on Ian Happ: ‘Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen’

MIAMI – The Cubs factored Ian Happ into their preseason plans, hoping he could give the team a shot of adrenaline at some point and play well enough to be marketed as a trade chip in a blockbuster deal for pitching.

But the Cubs couldn’t have projected this for late June: Happ batting third behind Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the switch-hitting presence and middle-of-the-order force needed with Ben Zobrist on the disabled list and Kyle Schwarber about to get a mental reset at Triple-A Iowa.

“Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen, when you look at the size and how far the ball goes,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday at Marlins Park. “It’s a unique combination of size and strength. You normally see a bigger guy with that kind of juice."

Happ (6-foot, 205 pounds) also patrolled right field that night – one of four different positions the rookie has handled so far – with Gold Glove defender Jason Heyward also on the disabled list and the Cubs in scramble mode.

The Schwarber demotion is a reminder of how hard this game is, how quickly it can spin out of control and how small sample sizes can be misleading, even on the biggest stages against some of the best pitchers on the planet.

But check out Happ’s first six weeks in The Show projected as a 162-game average on Baseball-Reference.com: 46 homers, 97 RBI, .916 OPS and 199 strikeouts.

“He’s just really interesting,” Maddon said. “Now you’re seeing him hit better from the right side, too, which is really going to matter. That really makes him a threat. You put him in the lineup based on that.”

The shorthanded Cubs have needed Happ – at the age of 22 – to protect Bryzzo Souvenir Co., add another layer of Zobrist versatility and learn it all on the fly for a team with World Series expectations.

“He’s pretty self-confident,” Maddon said. “There’s times I can tell when it’s beating him up a little bit when he goes through some of those funks where maybe he’s chasing pitches out of the zone. But he seems to rebound very quickly. Strong-minded. Strong-willed. Very confident individual.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs hopeful Kyle Hendricks returns before All-Star break]

Two weeks into Happ’s big-league career, Maddon got questions about how long the Cubs will be patient and what they would need to see out of him before thinking about a return trip to Des Moines.

Though Happ was hitting .207 as recently as last week, his average has jumped roughly 40 points. He’s homered eight times in his last 14 starts. Fifteen of his 21 RBI have come with two outs. His OPS hasn’t fallen below .741 at any point this season.

“That’s adjusting,” Maddon said. “You get here, nobody really knows you, they throw you pitches, you hit ‘em well. And all of a sudden, you stop seeing those pitches. You’re not going to see them again until you stop swinging at the stuff that they want you to swing at.

“He’s done a pretty good job of laying off the bad stuff. That’s why it’s coming back to him. He’s really reorganized the strike zone here.”

That whole process sped up on Schwarber, who lost the swagger and the ability to crush fastballs that made him such a dangerous hitter. Happ doesn’t have it all figured out, but by the look on his face and the sound of his voice, you would have no idea whether or not he’s hitting. 

“Unbelievable guy,” said Happ, who’s tight with Schwarber. “He’ll go down, rake, be back soon and do what he’s capable of doing, which is hitting the ball hard all over the ballpark. He’s done it his whole life. And he’ll continue to do it.” 

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

joemaddon.jpg
USA TODAY

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Joe Maddon gave an unforgettable shout-out to his blue-collar hometown during his first press conference as Cubs manager at The Cubby Bear, promising to buy the first round of drinks at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee.

Maddon dropped the microphone for a moment, and then picked it back up to make a final announcement before exiting stage left: “That’s a shot and a beer! That’s the Hazleton way!”

The faded city from Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region that Cubs fans first heard about in November 2014 – and became a go-to reference point during so many of Maddon’s daily media sessions – will get a national spotlight on NBC News’ “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.”

NBC correspondent Harry Smith shadowed Maddon and traveled to Hazleton for a magazine-style piece that will air Sunday at 6 p.m., just before the Cubs play the rival St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Maddon – who has visited the White House twice within the last six-plus months and sat down with Charlie Rose while the team was in New York in June – wants a focus on his Hazleton Integration Project and how that community organization is creating educational opportunities and trying to help the next wave of immigrants assimilate.       

“They’re going to save our town,” Maddon tells NBC. “You have two options right here. Either you get on board and help us as we’re moving this thing along or you’re going to die. And when you die and go away, then you’re going to get out of the way. You’re not going to be part of the problem anymore. So, it’s either help or die.”

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

willson_contreras_0720.jpg
USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”