Can Rizzo Really Hit Lefties This Well?

Earlier this week, fellow BP Wrigleyville writer Matt Trueblood and I had a fun conversation on Twitter regarding Anthony Rizzo’s true hitting prowess versus left-handers. The crux of our “argument” rested in my belief that Rizzo can continue to hit lefties as well as he has this season, while Matt casts a bit of side-eye due to the small sample of plate appearances and the overwhelming probability of regression.

The predominant discourse on Rizzo’s breakout 2014-2015 praises his improvements in batting stance, strikeout rate, and lefty/righty splits, but Matt is rightfully skeptical of the latter. Even the best players have platoon splits, and Rizzo’s exceptional performance against lefties in 2015 is in a mere 170 plate appearances, so it would not be unusual for Rizzo to regress. I’m more open than Matt to the idea that Rizzo has effected some real changes in approach versus lefties that have produced better results, so I thought it would be fun to dig into some numbers and see if we can draw any conclusions.

My working hypothesis is that Rizzo has combined an altered hitting approach with mechanical changes, so we’ll look at how lefties have pitched Rizzo, which of those pitches he’s been swinging at, how he’s performed against those pitches, and finally, how he’s changed his batting stance.

This season, Rizzo’s put up a .307/.418/.493 line against southpaws, including six home runs. To contrast, he’s at .276/.382/.552 against opposite handed pitching this season. His lower slugging and higher average versus lefties has resulted in a 90 point deficit in ISO against lefties. That slash against lefties is buoyed by a .343 BABIP, considerably higher than his .272 mark against right-handers, a significant difference that we’ll have to explore further. Finally, his strikeout and walk percentages are at 16.5 percent and 10.6 percent against lefties, 14.3 and 11.5 against righties, all incredibly good marks that put him in the upper echelon of hitters.

So, Rizzo’s hit for a bit less power against same-handed pitchers, but a slightly higher average and OBP, not an entirely shocking development. Part of this is probably due to the way lefties have attacked him, pitching him almost exclusively low and away. Here’s his 2014 and 2015 raw pitches seen versus lefties.

2014 LHP Raw

2015 LHP Raw
In 2014, left-handers stayed away, away, away with Rizzo, a common plan of attack for pitching to same-handed hitters, perhaps exaggerated here because pitchers fear Rizzo’s power. This season, the trend has been to pitch him even more extremely. It makes sense that Rizzo would lose some power when facing lefties, as they are significantly less likely to throw to him in the zone in any circumstance. Here are the locations of pitches he’s hit out of the ballpark this season, split by pitcher handedness:

Against righties, Rizzo has many more opportunities to hit pitches up in the zone and over the plate—something he does with frequency, as he’s hit 22 homers versus righties this season. Against lefties, those opportunities are much more rare, most likely mistakes that catch just enough of the plate for the lefty masher to do damage.

Here’s a homer Rizzo hit off of long-tenured St. Louis lefty Randy Choate.

Choate didn’t miss his spot by much, but Rizzo muscled the pitch “oppo into the wind,” as Len Kasper described it. A slightly more majestic shot was this impressive display versus the best pitcher in the game, Clayton Kershaw, clearly one of the home runs that shows up in the middle height, left part of the zone in the profile above.

It’s hard to do what Rizzo did in these two instances, especially when in a 3-2 count versus Kershaw. A lot has been made of Rizzo’s willingness to “shorten up” with two strikes, particularly against lefties. The prevailing opinion is that Rizzo will take a more compact swing when facing down the possibility of a strikeout. This theory attempts to explain Rizzo’s impressive downsizing of his strikeout percentage this season. A large part of this approach is rooted in mechanical adjustments, but we can look at the percentage of pitches Rizzo has swung at with two strikes as well.

2015 LHP Swings 2-Strike
Naturally, lefties love to stay out of the zone with two strikes against a dangerous lefty hitter, but when they do miss in the zone, Rizzo has swung every single time but once. This gives statistical credence to the “shortening up” theory. He’s even hit those pitches for modest success, evinced by this batting average chart:

2015 LHP Average 2-Strikes
We have evidence that Rizzo does, in fact, protect the plate when down in the count to lefties. With two strikes against him, Rizzo has hit five homers against righties and one against lefties, the aforementioned Kershaw blast in Los Angeles. None of this is particularly surprising, but it’s nice to see it graphically.

As for his mechanics, Rizzo has changed quite radically since his first full MLB season in 2013. This Sports on Earth piece does a good job of demonstrating visually how Rizzo has creeped closer to the plate and back in the box, leading to not only the hit by pitches that are the focal point of that piece, but to better plate coverage. Rizzo can now reach the outer half and beyond and hit those pitches with greater authority, a key factor in his new success against lefties. To counteract, pitchers—especially lefties—have moved farther and farther away, resulting in the first two visuals up top. To illustrate, compare Rizzo’s batting average with two strikes against lefties from 2013 to his 2015 above:

2013 LHP Average 2-Strikes
He didn’t have much success in that situation, and had virtually none on pitches on the outer part of the zone. The most obvious contributor to this small success is Rizzo’s scooting up to the plate. He can now get to those pitches with his bat, maybe not resulting in thundering home runs like the Kershaw one, but at least putting them in play. Now compare his whiffs versus lefties with two strikes from 2013 and 2015:

2013 LHP Whiff 2-Strikes
2015 LHP Whiff 2-Strikes
In 2015, he’s missing fewer pitches in that situation, both in and out of the zone. It’s an approach change that has worked so far, allowing for greater contact and modest power improvement.

Rizzo’s decline in strikeouts this year and his success versus lefties don’t appear to be flukes, even in these small samples, due to his real approach and batting stance changes. Rizzo has gone from a rather abysmal .189/.282/.342 line versus lefties in 2013 (replete with a 20.4 percent strikeout rate!), to .300/.421/.507 last season, to .307/.418/.493 this year. He’s totaled 341 plate appearances against lefties the past two years, and he’ll be facing some tough left-handers down the stretch—Francisco Liriano, I’m looking at you—so he’ll even have a chance to prove himself in high-leverage situations, a feat that the league’s leading hitter in WPA is more than capable of accomplishing. By focusing on contact with two strikes, Rizzo should help prevent the big strikeouts that can plague a team like the Cubs heading into the playoffs when facing big-time arms. Rizzo is an intelligent hitter who has made some serious adjustments, and his success against lefties should continue.

Lead photo courtesy of Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username