Anthony Rizzo is Still Growing Up

Anthony Rizzo is having a profoundly strange first full season in the Major Leagues. The Cubs first baseman signed a seven-year contract extension, ensuring he’s a long-term part of the team, but he’s hardly established himself as an above-average first baseman, let alone broken out the way one hopes a promising 23-year-old hitter might.

At times, Rizzo has flashed real and scary power. At times, he’s looked like an exceptionally balanced hitter, capable of putting bat to ball with a simple stroke and still stinging it the way few others can. At other times, though, he’s looked almost helpless, and the streakiness of his season might be as unsettling as the overall tepidity of his production.

in 541 plate appearances, Rizzo has 54 extra-base hits, 60 walks and only 101 strikeouts. Yet, he’s only hitting .229/.322/.432. Usually, stat lines like that one are for fringe outfielders, guys with major contact issues, three-true-outcomes players. Rizzo has hardly been that.

I wanted to frame his bizarre set of skill statistics with some context, so I sought out similar players to Rizzo. I ended up choosing eight of them. All are left-handed, because something weird is happening with platoon splits this season and I wanted to ensure I wasn’t seeing distortions stemming from something systemic, not specific to the individuals under study. All, like Rizzo, have walk rates meaningfully higher than the league average. All, like Rizzo, have strikeout rates within range of the average. All, like Rizzo, have isolated-power numbers north of .170. The rundown of their skill sets is below:

Anthony Rizzo’s Comparable Players, 2013

Player Walk Rate Strikeout Rate BABIP Isolated Power
Joey Votto 15.0% 19.2% .378 .185
Shin-Soo Choo 13.7% 19.7% .342 .171
Bryce Harper 12.0% 19.0% .294 .234
Matt Joyce 11.4% 18.7% .271 .196
Jason Kipnis 10.9% 21.8% .344 .181
Jason Heyward 10.4% 16.5% .279 .170
Anthony Rizzo 10.4% 18.7% .251 .202
Prince Fielder 10.0% 17.3% .288 .177
Adam Lind 9.4% 20.0% .320 .195

Now, maybe Rizzo is never going to be on the level of a Votto (the pure hitter) or Harper (the power hitter), but this is a fairly representative list. Rizzo is seventh in walk rate among the group, but third in strikeout rate and second (!) in power. The only separator, the thing that sets him unfortunately apart from this solid group, is that BABIP. Dead last, and it’s not close. The others average .315 there. Rizzo’s 60 points off that pace.

Lind and Joyce are platoon guys who require shelter from lefties. Rizzo doesn’t, although he becomes a caricature of himself, hitting for more power but a miserable, terrible BABIP. So if you’d like, replace those two with Freddie Freeman and Brandon Belt:

Player Walk Rate Strikeout Rate BABIP Isolated Power
Freddie Freeman 9.0% 19.1% .371 .161
Brandon Belt 8.8% 22.0% .326 .204

Freeman has less power; Belt has worse strike-zone command. The story, though, remains the same. Rizzo’s profile is strange right now. It seems as though being as good as he is at controlling the strike zone and driving the ball usually precludes being as bad as he is at getting hits on balls in play.

I think the best explanation for it all is that Rizzo is still very much in development, trying to figure out how he can be the best hitter it’s in him to be. The presence of Freeman, Kipnis, Harper and Heyward on the list belies that a bit, but in watching Rizzo, it feels true. It also explains his inconsistency. He seems to be trying different swings in different counts; different approaches; different ways of adjusting to and guessing along with an opposing pitcher.

I still think a good player will come out the other end of this on-the-job training regimen. Rizzo got the call to the big leagues too soon in 2011, and it really changed his developmental path, his arc. He failed miserably there, got into bad habits, and may still be fighting some confidence issues for that reason.

Much has been made of the eagerness with which the guys in the Cubs’ front office have pursued Rizzo. Theo Epstein was the GM when the Red Sox drafted him. Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod traded for him from San Diego. Now all three are in Chicago, and he was one of their first acquisitions. That’s neat, but the fact remains that Rizzo has been traded twice, and enjoyed very little continuity in the coaching and instruction he’s received over the term of his development. It’s likely that different coaches have had different visions for Rizzo. It’s possible that’s happening even now, that Dale Sveum and James Rowson and Rob Deer are still shaping Rizzo into the hitter they think he should be.

I don’t think Anthony Rizzo is somehow unable to hit for average, despite his solid strike-zone control and plus power, since everyone else who does those things as well as he does also hits for average. It seems to me that numbers compiled by players still under development must be taken with a grain of salt, or looked at from all angles so as to see what they do and don’t actually reveal.

So what is Anthony Rizzo, really? I think he’s eventually going to be a pure hitter first, and a power hitter second. Of all the swings I’ve watched him take this season, the one that stands out most clearly in my memory, the one that seemed most natural to him, came during the Cubs’ trip to Phoenix just after the All-Star break. There were two strikes on him, so he choked up on his bat. He lessened his leg lift. He didn’t load much at all; his hands did not move backward at all as he triggered his swing. He simply laid the bat on the ball, at the highest speed possible, and he let his six-foot-three, 240-pound frame do the rest. The ball took off to left-center field, eventually landing 390 feet from home, in the gap and then off the wall.

That’s going to be Anthony Rizzo, eventually. Some of those will leave the park; most will not. Because he has that swing, though—because it comes so easily to him—he will become more patient, force hitters to come into the strike zone and take his walks when they don’t. He already does this on one level, of course, or he wouldn’t have 60 walks on the year.

As he learns to hone his approach, though, and swing only at pitches he can really punish, he’s going to overcome the BABIP problems. He’s not going to find much more power; it’s not in his natural stroke. He won’t need to, though. I think he’ll hit 20 homers, add 45 doubles and maintain a batting average around .290. This is ambitious, and it’s a guess, but this is my guess, and given the evidence he’s provided so far, I think it’s a sound one.

One more thing: Tony Rizzo. Right? I mean, sooner or later, it’s gotta be Tony Rizzo. He’s too big to not go by Tony. He’s a big, burly first baseman. Tony Perez. Tony Clark. Tony Rizzo. Okay, that’s all.

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One Response to Anthony Rizzo is Still Growing Up

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Anthony Rizzo, Ground-Ball BABIP and the Cubs’ Platoon Disadvantage | Bleacher Nation | Chicago Cubs News, Rumors, and Commentary

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