Did you guys know that Anthony Rizzo was much better last year than in 2013? I know it hasn’t really been written about much, so it’s entirely possible that you could have missed it. Wait…scratch that, reverse it.
I’m pretty sure everyone recalls how lost the Cubs’ first baseman looked at times two years ago, when he slashed just .233/.323/.419 with 23 home runs in 160 games. He was stiff and closed-off at the plate, leaving him at the mercy of lefty pitchers, against whom Rizzo hit only .189/.282/.342.
But as Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma points out, Rizzo adjusted his entire stance heading into his breakout 2014 season.
This past summer, Rizzo was more open, slightly crouched, and his hands were a little higher and away from his body. The open stance allowed him to not have to turn his head as much to see the pitcher—he was almost facing him—which meant Rizzo had an easier time locating the ball upon release, especially with southpaws.
The placement of Rizzo’s hands higher and further from his body kept him from getting beat by quality high heat as often, allowed him to reach for pitches on the outer half of the zone and do some damage, while also keeping him from getting beat inside.
Just how much of a difference did the changes make? In aggregate, Rizzo’s slash line improved to .286/.386/.527 and he hit 9 more home runs (32) while playing in 20 fewer games (140). But what’s truly staggering is how much he improved against like-handed pitchers.
With a line of .300/.421/.507, Rizzo actually hit better against lefties than he did righties. He even took more walks (13.5% vs. 11.2%) and struck out less (16.4% vs. 19.8%) when facing southpaws. The power was reduced a bit, but that’s a small price to pay for the dramatic increases elsewhere.
Wrigley Field has a little something to say for those numbers too; Rizzo did more raking at the Friendly Confines last year than the grounds crew, as evidenced by his .315/.413/.530 slash line. In keeping with the stats above, he was even better against LHP, upping that line to .346/.465/.494.
Those same lines last year were .252/.353/.463 and .264/.364/.473, respectively. Not bad to see 60- and 70-point improvements in some of those categories, huh?
That’s all well and good for the Cubs of last year, but it means nothing if Rizzo regresses back to his 2013 form. So can he keep this up? Sharma certainly seems to think so:
Now it’s not just numbers telling us that Rizzo was a different player in 2014, but an actual mechanical change that led to brilliant results. Add in the fact that Rizzo utilized the bunt numerous times (three hits in five attempts) to beat the shift, leading to teams playing him straight up more often, and it’s easy to believe that Rizzo’s success will be sustainable going forward.
I had written back in April of last year about Rizzo’s newfound ability to beat the pull shifts that were being employed to contain him. In 2013, he hit a respectable .291 to the opposite field, but he improved to .329 last year. Forcing defenses to play him more honestly meant an even more dramatic increase in Rizzo’s BA to his pull field, which went from .267 to .404.
Absent the mechanical tinkering a struggling hitter makes, I have every reason to believe Rizzo can sustain the improvements he made last season. It’s hard to quantify, but it stands to reason that having a strong managerial presence and an improved lineup will help to alleviate some of the pressure, and attendant overthinking, on the young slugger as well.
There’s no doubt that it will be exciting to follow the growth of Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, to bear witness to the ascension of Kris Bryant, and to dicker over the value of Starlin Castro. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how Rizzo works to maintain his his performance as he cements himself as a bona fide superstar.
All stats via FanGraphs.