Anthony Rizzo had a rough go of things in San Francisco. In addition to some brutal play in the field, he was 0-for-11 in the two games in which he appeared. He struck out three times and didn’t make any especially inspiring contact, with Joe Maddon giving him the day off on Tuesday, in the middle of the three-game set.
His tough San Francisco series, as well as Rizzo’s overall numbers on the season, have led to a great deal of speculation as to what could be plaguing him at the plate and in the field. Many are claiming injury, as well as some potential mental hurdles he might need to overcome in order to get back to the Anthony Rizzo we’re accustomed to seeing. Is such speculation overblown? Has Rizzo been as bad as some of the numbers might indicate? Could he actually be suffering from a nagging injury? These are all legitimate questions, and none of them lead to black-and-white answers.
The one I’m going to focus on here, though, is whether or not Rizzo has, in fact, been as bad as we think. People have a tendency to overreact, but given my penchant for panicking when I see somebody’s face filtered as a piece of toast on Snapchat, I’m not really here to be the judge of that. And while it’s also not unreasonable to speculate injury, given how even minor ones can hinder a player’s performance at the plate, it’s difficult to prove it here (though there are a couple of smaller indicators). Instead I’ll simply focus on some of the trends that the stat sheet presents.
After four consecutive seasons with a WARP of at least five, including a 7.0 figure in 2016, Rizzo is only sitting at 1.0 to date. He’s hitting a paltry .240, while reaching base at a .336 clip. His TAv is at .262, more than 40 points below where he sat in 2017. FanGraphs has him at a wRC+ of just 96. The power is down significantly, with an ISO of only .160 and an OPS of .727, the latter of which is over 120 points below his career average. While some of what he’s doing could be considered “serviceable” in a general sense, this is far below what we’ve come to expect from an elite first baseman, which Rizzo is.
The simple explanation, as we transition, is that Rizzo has not been nearly as bad as some of the numbers might indicate. We’re all watching the Cubs on a game-by-game basis, so it’s easy to worry. But it’s also important to look at his performance in longer stretches. And while there’s cause for concern in this recent stretch, longer stretches throughout the course of this 2018 year don’t necessarily indicate the same level of concern.
For one, he’s made the same type of quality contact we’ve come to expect from him throughout the year:
While I said I wasn’t going to focus on health concerns, a significant dip in exit velocity would probably indicate such an issue. That doesn’t really appear to be the case here. There are some dips, sure, including a significant one at the end of April, but it’s been fairly steady throughout the year. Much of what has destroyed Rizzo, in a statistical sense, has been a BABIP that sits at just .236. And that figure alone has held him back consistently throughout the year.
A lot of what is hindering Rizzo, from a statistical standpoint, is his start to the year. Late March and April were not kind to the Cubs first sacker. He hit only .149 and reached base at a rate of just .259. His ISO over that stretch was just .041. That’s brutal for a power hitter, obviously. There was also a bad luck element there, though. He hit the ball on the ground at a fairly high rate (39.7 percent), but it’s not as if he was making overly soft contact. His hard contact rate was just a touch underneath where his career average sits, but he posted a BABIP of just .172.
May and June were much stronger for Rizzo, especially the former. He reached base at a .408 clip in May and turned in a .345 mark in June. His ISO shot up to .273 in May before .170 in June. FanGraphs had him at a wRC+ of 158 in May before a 106 mark in June. His hard hit rate between the two months averaged out to 34.1 percent. Even in those two months, though, his BABIP still came in at just .273. It’s not a spectacularly low figure, necessarily, but one that doesn’t exactly paint him as a picture of good luck.
July hasn’t been kind to Anthony Rizzo, however, and that’s much of what ignited the concern, especially in regards to his health. His hard hit rate has dipped to the low 20s, while he’s reached base at a rate of only .222. Of course, we’re talking about a sample of only 36 plate appearances. He didn’t look any better in the series finale after a day off, either. But perhaps a day off and a series against the San Diego Padres heading into the All-Star break will get him back on the track to close baseball’s first half. If the July trends carry over beyond the break, then we can start to worry.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that a lot of Rizzo’s trends related to his approach and types of contact are right in line with recent history. In some respects, they’re even better. His contact rate is up about two percent (83.9), while the total sample of the year has him hitting the ball only at a rate two points lower than last year (32.0). He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (also by about two points, at at 28.8 percent), and whiffing only at a 6.7 percent rate. That’s also less often than last season. Pitches per plate appearance are down a touch (3.59 against a career 3.83 average), but he’s swinging at an identical amount of pitches overall (46.3). And pitchers aren’t attacking him in a different way, in terms of usage either. Zone coverage looks quite similar between 2017 and 2018 as well, from a pitching perspective.
One potential source of issues? The shift. Rizzo is hitting .223 against the shift this year, against a career average of .284. That actually does go quite a ways toward explaining a lack of luck. It’s hard to find success when defenders are perfectly aligned against a hitter with pull tendencies such as Rizzo demonstrates—even if he’s hitting the ball hard consistently and getting it in the air less than he did in the first month of the season. But Rizzo has been fairly consistent in not being bothered by the shift in the past. His 43.7 percent career pull rate is fairly in line with what he’s turned in virtually every year with the Cubs. The easiest way to battle back against this is to put the ball in the air more. He’s put it on the ground an awful lot in June and July, with groundball rates over 40 percent in both months. Maybe it’s not a matter of trying to force the ball oppo more as it is just to get the ball in the air with more regularity.
This is a lot of information to process, but it really does go a long way toward indicating that these aren’t necessarily health or mechanical woes for Rizzo, which should be encouraging. He’s had stretches of scorching success in 2018, and there isn’t any real reason to think he can’t replicate that for stretches as the season progresses. We’ll obviously be watching closely to see if he can shake off this slump in the final series of the first half, and as the second one kicks off at the tail end of next week. While San Francisco gave many of us reason to panic, let’s give it more time before we jump to any significant conclusions about the health or performance of the Cubs superstar first baseman.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports