Just how elite is Anthony Rizzo?

It’s been widely observed that the trade with the San Diego Padres that netted the Cubs Anthony Rizzo back in January of 2012 was the move that really set the organization on course towards becoming the perennial contender that they have since become. While there are, of course, other elements of the rebuild that could stake their claim to that type of significance, that’s not the point to be made here. Ultimately, the trade helped the Cubs toward the sustained success that they so notably desired by giving them a player that could, arguably, represent the best at the position.

Anthony Rizzo is an elite player—that is undeniable at this point. He has one of the more dangerous bats in baseball, a strong approach, and a level of defensive ability that largely outplays the way that metrics tend to paint him. But just how elite is Rizzo? How does he stack up against some of his counterparts at the position? That’s what we’ll examine here.

Rizzo ranked at the top of the first base leaderboard in WARP in 2016, finishing with a mark of 6.96. Also working their way high up the list are the likes of Freddie Freeman (6.85), Paul Goldschmidt (6.29), Joey Votto (5.90), and Miguel Cabrera (4.04). Together, the five represent perhaps the best players that baseball has to offer at the first base position. Let’s take a look at how Rizzo stacks up against his counterparts at the position in a number of different respects.

The following represents where Rizzo ranked in a number of different statistical categories, with his ranks among those other four first basemen included in parenthesis:

2014 .286 (3rd) .386 (1st) .240 (1st) 116 (5th) 73 (2nd) .341 (1st) 98 (4th)
2015 .278 (4th) .387 (4th) .234 (2nd) 105 (4th) 78 (3rd) .328 (4th) 98 (4th)
2016 .292 (5th) .385 (5th) .252 (2nd) 108 (5th) 74 (5th) .334 (3rd) 92 (4th)

One additional aspect to toss in here is Rizzo’s Value Over Replacement Player. His VORP came in third both in this group and all first basemen overall, with a mark of 56.5. Freddie Freeman led the position with a nice 69.6 figure, while Paul Goldschmidt followed up with 58.6. To put that in a broader perspective, Rizzo finished 11th among all qualifying position players in regard to VORP.

There’s some interesting aspects to examine here. Obviously, when you’re talking about this particular group of players, no one necessarily expects Rizzo to run away in any specific category. So it’s not discouraging to not see him at the top of the class in the majority of these categories. The other four are of too high an offensive quality for that to happen. His average and on-base numbers are still strong and become no less valuable even when his counterparts at the position are posting higher figures.

But where Anthony Rizzo really succeeds in relation to his peers at first base is primarily in two respects: power and (lack of) strikeouts. He’s consistently at the top of the position in his isolated power, measuring his ability to hit for extra bases. He finished 15th among all qualifying position players in that regard. The other thing he brings that other players with big power figures don’t is a decided lack of punchouts. The 2016 season saw him post an 82.0% contact rate, second among that group behind only Joey Votto (obviously). Just for the sake of comparison, Freddie Freeman, the only player with a higher ISO than Rizzo this season, finished with a contact rate nearly 10% lower. The first base position boasts several high-OBP types, but Rizzo’s ability to avoid the strikeouts and maintain a quality contact rate is something that not everyone at the position possesses.

Paul Goldschmidt is the cream of the crop among baserunners in this group. His BRR is the only one in the position, with a 1.5 mark, while his 32 steals were only touchable by Wil Myers’ 28. But Rizzo has been a capable baserunner in his own right. His -1.2 has him just above average, if not a touch below. In 2015, he was well below average, but he did post an encouraging 2.1 BRR in 2014. He moves better than he’s given credit for and—while he may never replicate his 17-swipe 2015 season—he’s certainly a quality baserunner among players at the position.

Quickly jumping to the defensive aspect, Gold Gloves have long been considered arbitrary, name-based awards, but there’s a reason that Rizzo was able to take home the award at the first base position in 2016. FanGraphs had him finishing with 11 Defensive Runs Saved, more than any other player at the position. The only first sacker with more in the last two years combined is Goldschmidt, who holds a 22-21 edge over Rizzo largely because of an 18 DRS season in 2015. Fielding Runs Above Average also painted Rizzo in a pretty favorable light in 2016. The only player with a higher FRAA in 2016 was also Goldschmidt, who had Rizzo by a 15.7 to 10.9 margin.

The thing to keep in mind when examining Anthony Rizzo is the entire body of work. He doesn’t blow any of the competition out of the water in any particular regard. It’s that he can excel in almost every single regard, whereas some of his counterparts may demonstrate larger shortcomings and deficiencies in certain aspects. Rizzo does nearly everything extremely well, which is what makes him perhaps the most impressive quantity at the position, even if there are others who exceed his performance in individual categories. In regard to the entirety of his skill set, the debate may be more logical if centered around a guy like Paul Goldschmidt, who can excel in nearly every facet even in a down year. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports

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