Coming into the 2013 season, the two offensively players you heard mentioned most frequently when folks tried to talk up the Cubs’ otherwise non-existent offense were Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Forget that Alfonso Soriano is still around, and forget that Castro’s offensive value is largely tied to his position on the field. The mention of Rizzo was completely legitimate. With a revamped approach that played very well at the big league level last year – when he was just 22/23 – it was completely fair to project that Rizzo could be an offensive cornerstone for the Cubs in 2013 and beyond.
And then he started the 2013 season in a slump. A deep one. He was striking out in every other at bat, and it didn’t look like he was seeing the ball well. Fortunately for Rizzo, that slump lasted all of a week. Unfortunately, the narrative has carried on for almost a month.
Let me state it clearly for those who tuned out after that first week of games: Anthony Rizzo is killing the ball this year.
Yes, he’s hitting just .210 and he’s striking out in more than 25% of his plate appearances. But, once you get past those two numbers, you see a young man who’s blowing up.
First, let’s look at the highest level. Rizzo has six homers, the most of any first baseman in the National League. He’s just one behind Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis for the Major League lead at first base, and is tied for the 8th most homers of anyone in baseball. His 14 RBI don’t just lead the Cubs, they tie Rizzo for the 14th most in baseball. Rizzo’s .842 OPS puts him just behind Mike Trout and Evan Longoria, and ahead of a host of stars, including Carlos Beltran, Andrew McCutchen, and Matt Holliday. I haven’t heard any demotion cries coming out of St. Louis or Pittsburgh.
Digging deeper, Rizzo has been far better than even those numbers suggest. Although that batting average is just .210, his OBP is .310 and his SLG is .532. That gives him an impressive IsoD (the difference between your batting average and your OBP, a measure of your discipline) and a herculean IsoP (the difference between your batting average and your SLG, a measure of how much power you’re producing). In other words, if not for that pesky batting average, Rizzo’s OPS would be near the top of the league. He’s taking a lot of walks, and he’s crushing the ball when he hits it.
And what about that batting average? .210 sucks, and Rizzo can’t be completely excused from it. Or can he? You know where I’m going with this: Rizzo’s BABIP so far this year is an hilariously, unluckily low .184. That number is completely unsustainable, and will climb closer to .300 as the season goes on. I won’t muddy the waters with a lame attempt to project a new slash line if, say, his BABIP were .300, but, suffice it to say, his OBP would be approaching .400 and his SLG would be well over .600.
Even in his approach, there’s very little you could point to in the numbers that support any struggles. Rizzo is swinging at pitches outside of the zone at a lower rate than in either of 2012 or 2011. His contact rate with pitches in the zone is the best in his career, as is that rate at which he’s swinging and missing.
Taking it all together, it’s very hard to argue that Rizzo has been anything but great this year, and is simply being dragged down by some bad luck.
Now, that all said, Rizzo could still fall prey to the Sophomore Slump. It’s early, and any numbers I use to support Rizzo’s breakout could easily be neutered by chants of “small sample size.” Those chants would be completely legitimate, and let me join that chorus right now. These numbers are minuscule and tell us almost nothing about Rizzo’s future in 2013, let alone the next 10 years. I offer the numbers only to refute any grousing that Rizzo hasn’t been hitting so far this year. He has been. In spades.
Everything passes the eye test, too, as – at least to my eye – Rizzo’s approach has looked so much better in the last couple weeks, and he is patiently awaiting the optimal pitch to drive. And, when he gets that pitch, he drives it, using the whole field. Without much effort, I can think of four screaming line drives he’s hit that have been caught in the last 10 days alone. In a season of small samples – that’s all we have in late April – those four liners falling for hits could be the difference between an .842 OPS and a .900 OPS.
Defensively, Rizzo has made some mistakes. There can be no disputing that, and he’d probably be the first to tell you. Some of that is undoubtedly tied to having to adjust to the ranges of several second baseman while Darwin Barney was out. And Rizzo’s pitchers haven’t given him a lot of help when it comes time to cover first base, either. I have no reason to believe Rizzo’s defenses lapses aren’t a fluke, and that he won’t be fine there long-term.
The focus here, however, is on the offensive side of the ball. To anyone who suggests Rizzo has been anything but great – and a touch unlucky – offensively this year, you can tell them: you’re wrong.
So long as Rizzo keeps doing what he’s been doing, the numbers will be there by the end of the year.