Position: First Base, first in Cubs fans’ hearts.
2016 Stats: .292/.385/.544, .334 TAV, 7.o WARP
Year in Review:
How do you review something that Hollywood couldn’t do justice to in a movie script? A century of futility artfully ending as the dashing leading man slips as he fires the ball into the trustworthy mitt of his affable sidekick. Where the story further delves into the ludicrous absurdity of the screen is when you recall that the sidekick was laying in a cancer ward fighting for his life a few years ago. That the man who pitched the middle innings of Game 7 also fought the same disease as a young man—sometimes life is too unbelievable to be contrived.
Somewhere along the dreamworld journey of this season, Anthony Rizzo solidified himself in my mind as one of the most underrated players in baseball. That may seem like a strange premise. How can a guy that won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, while finishing in the top-5 of National League MVP voting be underrated? Perhaps by simply being in a curiously overshadowed role on a team in each and every area of his many strengths.
Rizzo just won his first Gold Glove, making one highlight reel play after another. Yet, it is teammates Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward that receive the majority of adoration for their defensive prowess. He mashes homers with elite consistency—eclipsing 31 taters each of the last three seasons—but it’s Kris Bryant that grabs headlines for exploits of prodigious power. He’s an on-base machine, also the calling card of Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler. He’s a man among men, single-handedly challenging entire dugouts to bring their worst… before welcoming the instigating player to his team when it was time to make amends for the betterment of the club. Still, it’s David Ross, Jon Lester and Zobrist who are lauded more than Rizzo for leading the team to the promised land. His smile could light the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, but it’s Bryant adorning murals and billboards.
He gives and gives and gives. In a world obsessed with taking and keeping, Anthony Rizzo pours out his life to those needing it in their darkest hour. It’s only fitting, then, that the unparalleled 2016 season ended with him gleefully tucking a $10 baseball into his back pocket as a memoir of his team’s accomplishment. Who am I kidding? He’s probably already given that to a kid as well.
It’s consistency the makes Rizzo so special; likely the same reason he’s often overlooked. No player in baseball has delivered such predictably dazzling results over the past three seasons. His on-base percentage has been between .385 and .387 each year. His slugging has deviated from the median by just 17 points. His OPS varied just 14 points from the median, exactly the same high and low. He hit 32 home runs in both 2014 and 2016, while smashing 31 in 2015. His TAv ranges from just .328 to .335 in that span. Even his walks (73, 78, 74) and strikeouts (116, 105, 108) occurred with incredible consistency.
He’s become the threat he is by overcoming his biggest weakness, an inability to consistently hit lefties. Over the past three years, he’s almost completely erased his platoon disadvantage by crowding the plate and daring pitchers to throw inside. This has resulted in pitchers plunking him 61 times in that span. It has also given the illusion that he’s taken away the inner-half from the pitcher, but that may not be as true as opposing pitchers believe it is. Take a look at how pitchers worked against him the last three years:
This reflects the traditional approach against a strong left-handed hitter. Keep the ball down and away, avoiding the inner and lower halves, as lefties typically abuse those pitches. You can actually picture it without even thinking. Ken Griffey Jr. deftly dropping his hands through the zone as his bat arcs in one perfectly smooth motion towards an ill-advised attempt to attack the lower inner half. Pitchers have these lasting images in their heads as well. However, Rizzo’s curious approach may actually call for opposing pitchers to dramatically alter their approach. Here’s how he fared against each location the past three seasons:
Absorbing three zone profiles at once takes careful review, so if you didn’t catch everything here is the gist: Rizzo whiffs way more often at pitches down and in than any other pitch. He also hits the ball with less authority on pitches inside than in any other location. As mentioned above, this is totally counter-intuitive to the mind of the pitcher, which is why they continue to work him down-and-away, despite his excellent results there. Further, those 61 beanballs mean he’s willing to bear the pain of hanging out over the plate, adding additional protection against pitchers attempting to exploit his biggest weakness.
At some point, opposing teams are going to have to admit to themselves that their approach against Rizzo isn’t working. They need to overcome their preconceptions and pound him down-and-in as often as possible. Rizzo would absolutely adjust back—that’s why he’s great—but utilizing the lower inside portion of the plate would give pitchers a better chance of consistently getting him out.
Despite having yet to play in his age-27 season, Rizzo is the longest tenured Cub. He’s coming off of a season in which he finished fourth in MVP voting, while recording the sixth highest WARP (6.96) in all of baseball. His team just broke a curse that started with nearly 100 years remaining in one millennia, and ended 16 years into another. With the retirement of Ross, maybe he’ll finally be regarded as the face of the franchise and leader of the clubhouse. Perhaps he furthers his ability to elevate the baseball, and parlays those 43 doubles into a 40 home run season. Or maybe he controls the strike zone a bit better, and lowers his strikeout total below 100 while eclipsing the .400 OBP mark for the first time. He is just now coming into his prime, and his game doesn’t rely greatly on athleticism. He’s still getting better.
What sets Rizzo apart from many of his peers won’t be what happens on the field next year, or any year after that. It will happen in the hospital rooms of children across the Chicagoland area. It will happen as he personally recognizes the plight of others in their most trying times. Giving of himself and his special gifts to brighten the lives of those who need it most. We know this because we know of the consistency of Anthony Rizzo. That’s who he is, that’s who he’ll always be.
Lead photo courtesy David Richard—USA Today Sports