Cubs Report Cards: Anthony Rizzo Shows New Tricks in Solid 2015

Here’s the trouble with being really, really good: you tend to establish a curve against which your future performance will be measured. Such is the case for Anthony Rizzo, whose excellent 2015 campaign may not have been quite as good as his 2014. But he also displayed a heretofore unseen burst of speed (Fangraphs article) and improved his contact, proving that his big jump last year is entirely sustainable.

Coming into the season, Rizzo’s career stolen base total stood at 16. He now has 33. Those 17 swipes tied him for 29th in the majors and put him 2nd among all corner infielders (Goldschmidt – 21, Machado – 20). While no one was seeing shades of Rickey Henderson, Rizzo nonetheless exhibited a lumbering grace as balletic as it is ballistic. He was a cannonball with a conscience.

More than just the number of stolen bases in particular, Rizzo’s general display of high baseball IQ was impressive. This isn’t anything new, as he has always been a guy who just seems to “get it,” but that awareness manifested itself in some pretty spectacular ways in 2015. Take, for instance, his masterful avoidance of David Murphy’s tag on a play at third base back in July:

And while we’re talking about spectacular heads-up plays…

But — and this isn’t really the kind LL Cool J would leave you for — there were some small dips in Rizzo’s offensive numbers. His home runs were down (31 in 2015 against 32 in 2014) in 85 more at-bats, and his .278 batting average (.286) and .512 slugging (.527) were lower year-over-year as well. Catch-all offensive metrics like wOBA (.384 to .397) and wRC+ (145 to 155) were down a little too. If it feels like I’m nitpicking here, that’s absolutely the case. When trying to objectively measure the performance of one of the Cubs’ established stars, picking at nits is an unfortunate necessity.

I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the fact that Rizzo’s BABIP (essentially a measure of how lucky a hitter is) was 22 points lower than in the prior year, indicating that he didn’t benefit from as much luck. But what the baseball gods tried to take away, the Cubs’ leader manufactured on his own. His strikeout rate was way down (15% vs. 18.8% last year) and his OBP was actually up (.387 vs. .386) despite the lower batting average. Much of that was a direct result of taking one for the team at a league-high rate.

Rizzo takes full ownership of the plate, assuming residence of the inside corner like a squatter in a foreclosed home. As a reward for his approach, he wore 30 pitches over the course of the season. At times, it was like watching Rocky square off with Clubber Lang as fans watched their star take ball after ball off the arm, back, thigh, foot, whatever. But each time, he just shrugged it off as if to say, “My grandmother hits harder than that!” Still, I must admit to getting more than a couple lumps in my throat seeing him plunked in potentially compromising spots.

The 2015 season wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but Rizzo was a huge part of what made fans feel as though there really was a pot of gold waiting for them at the end. As GIF-able as he is affable, Rizzo he came across as sort of the de facto ringleader of the Cubs’ goofy fun this season. At the same time, his 5.5 WAR was 9th in the NL and 2nd to only the inimitable Kris Bryant’s 6.5 for the team lead. And at only $5 million, the slugging first baseman was a tremendous value as well. I think what I’m trying to say is that I can think of worse guys around whom to build a team.

Final grade: A-

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