Anthony Rizzo and the greatest mulligan of all time

Back in late July, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the finale of the Cubs/Diamondbacks series in person. After David Bote sent Wrigley Field up for grabs with a two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth-inning homer to complete a furious five-run Cubs comeback, tying the score at six, Anthony Rizzo strode to the plate as the potential game winning run.

With the ballpark on its feet and the speakers blaring Rizzo’s beloved walk up song “Intoxicated,” the crowd did what it does best: demonstrating that 38,000 white people can somehow clap on 38,000 different beats. But in the midst of all this pandemonium, one lone voice raised a discordant note of doubt in the row behind me.

You know this type of fan and you’ve probably sat in front of him several times: the guy whose quality of sports opinions is inversely proportional to the volume and frequency with which he spews them. For lack of a better term, we’ll call him “The Cowherd.” And at a moment in the game that somehow mixed the best qualities of exultation and anticipation, this craven Cowherd decided to expose everyone around him to his most obnoxiously ill-informed bon mot of the day:

“Right now, Rizzo’s got as much power as my grandma!”

That take was so hot, Nelly immediately booked a comeback gig at Wrigley just to urge it to take off all its clothes. 

And two pitches later, Rizzo proved that the Cowherd’s grandmother can nearly hit the ball onto Sheffield.

If anything could sum up the entirety of Rizzo’s 2018 season in one at bat, it would be that sequence. Months of struggle were enough to convince the doubters that he was  going to be subpar. But in the end, he proved that he was still a great player that the Cubs could depend upon when they needed him most.

Take a look at the numbers Rizzo accumulated this year: .283/.376/.470. A .301 True Average. 4.5 WARP. All of them look like a fairly typical Anthony Rizzo season. And the very fact that Rizzo’s numbers look exactly like what you’d expect from him is what made his performance in 2018 so extraordinary. Because for Rizzo, this past year was like a statistical turducken. A normal “Tony Rizz” season was inside the whole time. But to get there, we had to get through thick layers of Koyie Hill and Aaron Miles.

As you no doubt recall, the beginning of Rizzo’s season was so cringeworthy, it could have been the premise for an entire season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Or, for that matter, any given seventh inning stretch interview with Jeff Garlin). After homering on Opening Day, he proceeded to put up one of the worst statistical months of his career, slashing .149/.259/.189 in April.

The only appropriate words for those batting numbers were the ones uttered by Susie Essman. (Or Rizzo himself after an Angel Hernández called third strike).

For comparison’s sake, Rizzo amassed a surprisingly preferable .141/.281/.242 line during his ignominious 2011 debut with the Padres. Which means that his first month of 2018 was officially the only thing on earth that would have looked better in sand colored baseball pants.

Or consider this: Ryne Sandberg was notorious for starting the season so slowly that the best thing that ever happened to him in April was his attempt to grow a mustache only slightly more believable than Bobby Valentine’s. And in his worst opening month performance in 1983, Ryno still outhit Rizzo’s April 2018 by 30 points of OPS.

Although if Anthony wants to feel better, all he has to do is google “Ryne Sandberg flossing.” (And if the “Rally Ryno” doesn’t become a major Jumbotron feature in 2019, I don’t even know why Crane Kenney still has a job).

To underscore one of the worst months of his career, April also offered a host of maladies that conspired to seemingly torpedo Rizzo’s 2018 season just as it had begun. His dreadful start was exacerbated by a number of factors ranging from the emotional fallout of opening in Miami only six weeks after the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School to difficulties hitting against the shift to a back injury caused by a bed in Cincinnati.

Things didn’t get much better over the next two weeks either as on May 16, Rizzo was still mired in the depths of a .195/.301/.358 season. But then as the Cubs began another series against the Reds on the 18th, Tom Ricketts finally sprung to get Rizzo out of the Queen City Days Inn and a 3-for-6 performance helped launch him on an 11-game hitting streak to permanently get his average above the Mendoza line.

From that moment through June 7, Rizzo finally began looking like the Anthony Rizzo we’ve come to know and love, hitting a making-up-for-lost-time .352/.442/.606 over 19 games. But just as it appeared that he had emerged from the morass of the season’s opening weeks, he sank back into the swamp just like he was a castle built by Michael Palin. 

Over the next 30 games, Rizzo again looked almost as lost as he was in April, enduring a .207/.297/.297 stretch that was so meek, the only thing he could take comfort in was that it would undoubtedly trigger his contract’s little known “inherit the earth” clause. He awoke on July 13 hitting a meager .236/.333/.393 on the year with only 12 doubles and 12 home runs. 

Since those were his numbers past the halfway point, everybody could be forgiven for lowering their expectations for the big first baseman. If Rizzo ended the season hitting somewhere in the .250 range with 18-20 homers, we figured it would probably have to be good enough after such a disappointing first half. Clearly, if his 2018 were to be rescued, it would require drastic action.

It was a good day to unleash the greatest leadoff hitter of all time.

Joe Maddon batted Rizzo first in that evening’s lineup. He responded by going 3-for-5 with two doubles against the Padres. So he led off again the next night and went 1-for-4. And then 2-for-3 with a double and walk. And then 2-for-4 with two doubles and a walk.

And then it was on. 

I can’t quite bring myself to say that batting Rizzo leadoff had a causal effect in terms of breaking him out of his first half malaise. But I can definitely conclude that it was the moment that his entire season turned around and he reclaimed his position as one of the very best players in the game. With the exception of one day where he entered in the seventh inning, Rizzo led off for the next 28 games. And in that span, he made every National League pitcher feel like they just spent the night in Cincinnati, blazing a .340/.439/.563 path of destruction before being returned to the middle of the order.

Even after that, Rizzo continued his torrid pace as one of the few offensive performers the Cubs could consistently rely upon in the season’s final months.  Over his final 73 games, Rizzo hit a sterling .337/.425/.559 with 17 doubles and 13 homers. This might be the best way to describe Rizzo’s second half: he was consistently excellent enough to make his overall numbers look normal.

Thanks to this brilliance, Anthony Rizzo’s 2018 appears to fit in well with the great years that preceded it on the stat sheet. And what might be most interesting about Rizzo’s 2018 is that the way it played out eerily resembles a prominent season from another player whose approach Rizzo has attempted to emulate: Joey Votto.

For the first two and a half months of 2016, Votto looked about as lost as Rizzo did during the opening half of this year. The future Hall of Fame Reds first baseman put up a .640 OPS that April and as late as June 14, he was hitting a decidedly unVotto-esque .239/.370/.438. I’m sure Marty Brennaman was on him every day during those first couple months because Votto’s batting and slugging averages were too closely resembling one of his broadcasts: insufferable.

Then, just as it did for Rizzo this past year, something clicked. And from mid-June through the end of the season, Votto spent 93 games hitting a transcendent .385/.480/.624. For the second half, Votto got to experience what it must have felt like to be a Canadian Ted Williams—so much so that the only surprise was that he didn’t miss the next two seasons serving the military on a mission to rescue Terrance and Phillip.

And while Rizzo’s second half this season did not quite evoke Teddy Ballgame comparisons, it was sublime enough to rescue his overall numbers in a manner similar to the way Votto’s did two years ago. We already knew that Rizzo and Votto shared similar approaches to hitting: a selective approach heavy on walks and power, choking up and conceding with two strikes, etc. This past season demonstrated another impressive trait they have in common: perseverance through lengthy stretches of adversity.

As Rizzo so powerfully demonstrated that day against the Diamondbacks, sometimes it’s how you finish.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Osentoski—USA Today Sports

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