MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals

Rizzo Reaches for Greatness, Even as He Meets It

Theo Epstein and his front office crew have really turned over the roster since arriving in Chicago late in 2011. Now that Starlin Castro has been traded to the New York Yankees, the Cubs’ longest-tenured player is reliever/sometime-starter Travis Wood, who barely edges out clubhouse leader and first baseman Anthony Rizzo—Wood was called up on May 6, 2012 and Rizzo on June 26th of the same year.

In just that short amount of time, a period spanning essentially three-and-a-half seasons, Rizzo has made his mark not only on this current installment of the Chicago Cubs but on the franchise as a whole. We all know, of course, that Rizzo has been really good in a Cubs uniform, but when you look at his career to date with a bit of a wider lens, well, it turns out that he’s actually in rare company.

Allow me to elaborate. Rizzo came up with the Cubs at the age of 22 back in 2012 and will play 2016 at just 26 years old. He was a bright spot in a lineup that, for many years, featured little else to be excited about. It wouldn’t be until late in the 2014 season that the other parts of the next great Cubs baseball team would begin to arrive.

But in the meantime, Rizzo developed into a star. He’s the first Cubs first baseman to hit 30 or more home runs in back-to-back seasons since Derrek Lee did it in 2004 and 2005, and he’s also just the second left-handed hitter in team history to accomplish the feat at all, there sharing the throne with Hall of Famer Billy Williams. He’s already signed an extension and is therefore locked up for the next six years for $59 million in total, which includes two team options in the final two seasons.

He’s started more playoff games at first base than any other Cubs first baseman since Phil Cavarretta, and he’s the only player in Cubs history to hit a home run that won a playoff series. Don’t believe me? Here’s the video. But that only scratches the surface of how truly great Rizzo is and can be, in terms of first basemen in Cubs history.

By cumulative WARP in a Cubs uniform, the five best first basemen in modern-day Cubs history (going back to 1960) are Mark Grace, Derrek Lee, Leon Durham, Anthony Rizzo, and Ernie Banks. If you look at their stats per 162 games played, while manning first base, here are the stat lines for each of those players:

first basemen

This puts it into proper perspective to show just how good Rizzo has been, when compared to other great players at first base. But to hammer the point home just a bit further, here is the career WARP totals from those players—again, just as first basemen—in a Cubs uniform, as well as the plate appearances they took to get to that total:

cubs 1b warp

Using the PECOTA projections BP has available for Rizzo, we can get a reasonable idea of when he could officially become the best first baseman in franchise history. Assuming he makes it through all six years of his contract, while maintaining relative health, he should hit free agency at age 32 with around 33.2 combined WARP as the Cubs’ first baseman. That would put him ahead of everyone on the list above except Grace, who combined for 33.9 WARP in 13 seasons and 8,234 plate appearances with the Cubs. At the point we’re discussing, Rizzo would have played 10 seasons for the Cubs with around 5,500 plate appearances accrued.

This, again, is all simply based on projection. But PECOTA is oddly bearish on Rizzo, who is coming off two straight seasons with a WARP over five. The system projects him for just 3.9 WARP next season, at an age where he is truly just beginning his prime, and the projections generally slope downward from there. That’s not to say PECOTA is wrong or that 3.9 is a bad number, just that the projection is conservative.

Which means that it’s in no way a stretch to suggest that he reaches Grace-like numbers. Of course, we’re not exactly talking about a list of all-time greats here—although Banks is a Hall of Famer, mostly based on his work as a shortstop. There is an argument to be made that Rizzo could be ascending to the top of a list that just doesn’t have many great players on it. Each player had his fundamental flaw or negative defining moment.

For Grace, it’s his lack of power in an era that basically demanded it. For Lee, it was the wrist injury. For Banks, it was that he was on the tail end of his career. For Durham, it was the grounder through his glove. But Rizzo has had no such moment—at least not yet. He’s still a kid in baseball terms, but finished fourth in MVP voting last season. He struggled a bit in the playoffs, but if you think that’s any reason to rag on Rizzo then please scroll up and watch the video again.

If I wanted to get really radical on you, I’d bring up the era in which Rizzo plays versus those featuring Grace and Lee. In the best years of Grace’s career from 1993-1999, MLB games averaged around 9.7 runs per game. From Lee’s prime stretch of 2004-2008, MLB games averaged right around 9.5 runs per game. Over the last three seasons? Games are seeing just 8.3 runs scored. That’s a huge difference, and for Rizzo to be mentioned in the same conversation as these guys when scoring is down so much begins to make the point about the gap between Rizzo and his competition.

Among first basemen, Rizzo is the franchise leader in wRC+ at 132. This means that when comparing the difference between the league average player and all the Cubs first basemen in their given careers, Rizzo is the most exceptional in his era of baseball. This doesn’t take sample size into account, of course, but leading in wRC+ is impressive whether it’s done based on four seasons or fourteen seasons. Leading in this stat category highlights his performance at a time in baseball where offense is down across the board.

There is a lot here that really suggests that Rizzo is already one of the all-time great Cub first basemen. At worst, Rizzo will likely become the best in modern Cubs history at his position within the next five or six seasons. At best, you could argue that he already is better than all the rest, in that he’s been so good in an era that is so rich in pitching. Not too bad for a 26-year-old.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.

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3 comments on “Rizzo Reaches for Greatness, Even as He Meets It”

I’d be interested to see how he stands up against other great first basemen who were not Cubs.

Ryan Davis

I may have to look into that at another time! That’s a good question. Would have to take age into more serious account, like WARP and other counting stats produced by age 26.

Let’s not 4get his off the field acts that are above and beyond, and his clubhouse presence. There are 40 homer a season players i would not want because they are like a cancer in the clubhouse,Rizzo is a real leader.I have watched all the 1st baseman mentioned above and i think Rizzo is going to be the pick of the litter.

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