Ian Happ's season at the plate would be considered rare for any player, the fact he's become the force at the No. 3 spot in the Bearcats order as a freshman leaves him in elite company.
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By Ashley Davis/Special to GoBearcats.com
CINCINNATI -- Only 44 games into his collegiate career and freshman infielder Ian Happ already owns several plays worthy of highlight reels, including one where he caught a foul ball falling backward into the seats at Great American Ball Park.
But that spectacular catch is not the favorite moment of his young career. That moment comes at the plate, in a game against Toledo on April 3, in which he hit a walk-off home run.
"I'd never hit a walk-off home run before," he said. "And that was pretty sweet."
Not only did that home run provide him with a special moment he'll always remember, it was also the point he began an offensive surge. Since the Toledo game, his batting average has fluctuated between .304 and .325 and now settled at a team-leading .317, with five home runs and 30 RBI.
Happ's great offensive month has helped produce an impressive season for any player and rare numbers for a freshman.
He leads the team in seven of 11 offensive categories, including batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, doubles, home runs, total bases and walks. He also leads the team in stolen bases and stolen base attempts with 17 out of 21.
He is tied with junior outfielder Justin Glass in runs scored and RBI, and is second only to Glass in hits. He and Glass are the only players to start all 44 games.
A dominant April culminated in a return to his hometown when the Bearcats played a three-game series at Pittsburgh last weekend. Twenty members of his family and friends gathered to watch him play, and he gave them a show, hitting .462, with two home runs, four RBI and two steals, despite the team being swept.
But Happ downplayed the idea he played well because he performed in front of his family and friends.
"It was good to be home, for sure," he said. "But, it was just seeing good pitches and making good swings; you know, just another series."
This attitude contributed to Happ's special freshman season, not just one series in his hometown.
Head coach Brian Cleary sees a centered, smart player who understands how to make adjustments at the plate.
"I think he's got good ability to focus," Cleary said. "He pays attention to his game. He can figure some stuff out on his own. He's got baseball ability, but he's also got some baseball skills up top."
Much of his success can be attributed to his versatility, especially at the plate. Happ bats as a switch hitter, he's been doing it since he was a kid.
"I was about eight years old when I started working on it," he said. "My first year in high school was the first year that I hit full time switch-hitting in games."
Most switch-hitters still prefer one side of the plate to another. So which side does Happ prefer?
"It depends on the day really," Happ said. "Sometimes I feel more comfortable left-handed, sometimes more right-handed."
His versatility not only helps him at the plate, but in the field too. He plays multiple infield positions and moves around the infield from game to game, playing mostly first, second and shortstop.
Cleary thinks Happ has yet to find his best position, however.
"I think he's really capable at a number of different places and he's got pretty good baseball savvy, so he kind of knows his way around the field," Cleary said.
Finding the best position for him will come with defensive improvement, it's the one area he's still showing residue adjusting as freshman. This season, he's committed 22 errors and while he does get more chances than any of his other teammates, it still averages out to one error every second game. And he knows, it.
Cleary knows it too. But he remains confident Happ will get better defensively with time. He explained that the ball plays faster off the bat in college than it does in high school and the angles infielders take are much different. Even the way a player moves his feet can be different.
"Playing in the infield for a first-year guy is a major change because of the speed of the game," Cleary said. "It takes some getting used to. He'll get better at that the more he does it."
It's not just Cleary who sees Happ developing into a great player. Glass, one of the resident veterans on the team, knows he has only just begun to tap into his potential. Glass says he can see the adjustments Happ has made from fall to the beginning of the season and he's catching on and learning faster every day as the season has progressed.
"The sky's the limit," Glass said. "As long as he keeps working hard and focusing in, he'll do fine."