I can remember back to a lazy afternoon in the offseason prior to the 2014 season. I was, for some reason, listening to Chicago sports talk radio. A pundit who shall not be named was ragging on ‘The Plan’, which was something that was not uncommon back in those days. With the Cubs coming off their second poor season on the field under the Theo Epstein regime, anyone and everyone found a reason to rip them apart.
And you know what? Some of it was fair. There were questions, at the time, about how soon you could realistically expect the team to put things together. They’d just fired their manager, Dale Sveum, and hired a complete unknown in Rick Renteria. Starlin Castro needed to be fixed, Jeff Samardzija was going to be traded, and most of the veterans were gone. They wouldn’t be good that year, and it was clear.
But then I heard something I thought was egregious: Anthony Rizzo isn’t a starter on a good baseball team. How could anyone come to that kind of conclusion about a player so clearly headed for stardom? Okay, so maybe Rizzo’s career trajectory wasn’t quite as clear back in the 2013 season—in which he hit .233/.323/.419—but he certainly looked like a good, young building block. He would be, at the very least, one of the regulars surrounded by the many prospects that were on their way.
Fast forward, and we know that history laughs at that poorly informed declaration of meatball radio. Rizzo broke out in 2014 and proved he could do it again, this time on a winning team, in 2015. And this season he’s gone to another level. Can you see it? He’s been more than just one of the best players on one of the best teams in baseball. He’s raised his level of play to the point where we could legitimately begin the early-season-MVP discussion. On the short list with Rizzo would be his teammate Dexter Fowler, who has quite the argument himself, but I assure you it would indeed be a short list.
Rizzo has been driving the ball early in the season, hitting at rates that have him projected for over 40 doubles and 50 home runs—assuming he could keep the pace. With a career walk percentage of 11.1 and strikeout percentage of 17.8, it’s unconscionable that the slugging first baseman could continue improve on those numbers, but he has. He’s raised his walks to 16.0 percent this season and his strikeouts are down to 13.4 percent.
At just 26 years old, Rizzo seems to simply be getting better. When he’s making contact and putting the ball in play, he’s hitting the ball harder this year. According to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity is up from 89.1 mph to 92.9 mph. Rizzo waits, biding his time, as though he’s simply in no hurry to swing the bat. He’ll let you know when he’s ready.
And when he does, the ball goes a long way. The average distance on the ball off Rizzo’s bat, again via Baseball Savant, is up to 246.5 feet from 229.5 last season. He’s been homer-happy in the early going, with his nine dingers tying him for fourth-place in Major League Baseball at the moment. You may remember Rizzo from such moon-shots as the two blasts against the Reds in Cincinnati:
Or possibly from this line-shot to right against the Colorado Rockies in mid-April:
There have been real fundamental changes in Rizzo at the plate this year—not just in the results. Digging up and looking at some of the numbers from 2015, there are notable changes in the way that pitchers are approaching Rizzo and the way he’s responded.
There’s a lot of information there, so allow me to tenderly explain the meat of it. Rizzo is being slightly more selective in the zone while laying off way more of the bad pitches outside the zone. The result? Pitchers are being forced to throw him more pitches in the zone, and he’s making contact with those pitches at a slightly higher rate—he’s making contact with 91.9 percent of the pitches he swings at in the strikezone. That’s good.
So to summarize things, by the age of 26 he’s played in parts of six seasons in the major leagues, made two All-Star teams, led a young and exciting club to the NLCS, earned the love and admiration of his teammates, the Cubs organization, and the fans, and transformed into an MVP-candidate at the plate. Oh, and he beat cancer along the way. When I was 26, my wife was happy if I got my dirty socks all the way to the laundry basket.
Whether he continues hitting the ball out the park at his current rate or not (I’m going to guess Rizzo hits less than 50 homers this year), it really looks like he’s, somewhat amazingly, continuing to become a better baseball player. Thinking back, this kind of production wasn’t really expected out of him back when the Cubs acquired him from San Diego in 2012. He wasn’t supposed to be this good. He was talented, but a future role player to mix in with studs like Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez.
But, as we learn time and time again, things in baseball aren’t always as they seem. Rizzo isn’t just good enough to be a starter on a good baseball team, but he’s transforming into a truly special ballplayer. The scary part? This might not be as good as he’s going to get.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.