Guest Post: Anthony Rizzo, Ground-Ball BABIP and the Cubs’ Platoon Disadvantage

anthony rizzo cubs[Ed. - Matt Trueblood writes at Arm Side Run, and you can follow him on Twitter @Arm_Side_Run. Matt wanted to dig a little more into Anthony Rizzo's 2013 season, as well as an interesting GBBABIP phenomenon, and share it with us here at BN. Get ready for a deep dive.]

The Chicago Cubs signed first baseman Anthony Rizzo to a seven-year, $41-million contract on May 12, 2013, and, for a few months, it looked like a coup. Rizzo played his 162nd game as a Cub on June 26, and at the end of play, he had 37 doubles, two triples and 27 home runs over that span. For the 2013 season, he was hitting .256/.343/.474, and he was playing terrific defense.

Thereafter, though, Rizzo had a miserable season. He would finish at .233/.323/.419, only slightly above the league-average output. Not the type of production for which one hopes from a first baseman. He managed to rack up 65 total extra-base hits for the year, in 160 games, but the shape of the distribution—40 doubles, two triples and 23 home runs—left him a bit short of elite power status.

What went wrong? Good question. As it turns out, most of the answer is that Rizzo couldn’t buy a hit when he hit the ball on the ground.

Rizzo had a .172 BABIP on ground balls in 2013. League average is around .240, so there’s a chasm between normal hitters and Anthony Rizzo in this regard. Only Edwin Encarnacion, Nick Swisher and David Murphy came in lower. Though Encarnacion had a fine season, and Swisher (the most similar to Rizzo in the bunch) still returned some value, Murphy came in with a .282 OBP, and lost his regular spot in the Texas Rangers’ lineup.

In order to forecast Rizzo’s future, we have to figure out whether his struggles on grounders are real, or if they’re bad luck, or what mixture of the two it may be. Is a low ground-ball BABIP an obdurate artifact of his approach and skill set, or did he catch some bad bounces?

It’s likely some of both, and specifically, it’s likely a bit to the bad side of 50/50. Rizzo is a slow-footed, left-handed power hitter. That’s the archetype of a player whose ground-ball BABIP remains low. That makes sense:

  • Shifts work best against left-handed pull hitters, of which Rizzo is certainly one.
  • Batters pull most of their grounders (and Rizzo is no exception), which (for left-handed batters) means the fielder who gets to the ball has a short distance to throw it.
  • Most power hitters aren’t looking to hit ground balls, so when they do, it figures that the pitcher has often won, and the ball might be more likely to be weakly met.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to sustain numbers this bad, as the year-by-year leaderboards indicate.

Worst BABIP on Ground Balls, MLB, 2010-13 (via FanGraphs)

A quick glance shows just how little staying power severely low grounder BABIP has. The 92 entries listed (the worst 23 qualifying batters for GBBABIP for each year) include 80 different players. There are extreme power hitters, and slap hitters, clods and Coco Crisps. Even Mark Teixeira, the only player to show up on the list for three straight seasons, never hit .172 on ground balls. Rizzo might or might not have an unfortunate propensity for grounding out, but even if he does, we should expect a significant rebound, and his solid power, strikeout and walk skills will shine much brighter with even a modest bump in BABIP.

By the way, Rizzo’s closest comps in that table—guys like Morrison, Davis, Lind and Hosmer—tend not to be guys who show up a second time. Rather, the repeat offenders are mostly switch-hitters, like Matt Wieters, Jimmy Rollins, Mark Teixeira and Ben Zobrist. While pull-power lefties may be at a systemic disadvantage for defensive reasons, it also feels like there’s some intrinsic disadvantage to having the platoon advantage, when it comes to GBBABIP. There were 16 switch-hitters in the table, all told, 20 percent of the total and about four more than we would expect, given a normal distribution of batter handedness.

To me, there’s no reason to suspect that Rizzo’s BABIP on grounders will stay that low. Taking the 204 grounders he hit, and bumping his BABIP on them to .210, that’s eight extra hits, one of them a double. Instead of .233/.323/.419, Rizzo would have posted a slash line of .246/.335/.434. Bad luck cost Anthony Rizzo the right side of a .750 OPS, and probably made a significant dent in his perceived value. I wrote up Rizzo’s peculiar year back in September, and stand by what I said then: Rizzo is still a solid player, and he’s going to bounce back in 2014, even if part of his BABIP sag was a true loss of hard contact in the second half.

Now, I want to move beyond Rizzo a bit, and look at this ground-ball platoon phenomenon on a team level. I observed above that there are a disproportionate number of switch-hitters on the yearly leaderboards for ground-ball suffering. There are also (if only just) more lefties than we would expect. In a sample so small, the difference isn’t statistically significant, but I wonder whether the numbers still have something significant to say.

It’s not just that there are a lot of left-handed and switch-hitting batters on the list. It’s also that many of the non-switch-hitters are platoon-protected. Nate Schierholtz and David Murphy in 2013. Skip Schumaker, Jeff Keppinger and David DeJesus in 2011. Gerardo Parra in 2010. And if you lowered the playing-time qualification threshold, you could add another name to the list: Luis Valbuena, at .206.

That’s four and a half Cubs who, when they put the ball on the ground last season, had worse than a 21 percent chance of reaching base, in Rizzo, Schierholtz, Valbuena, Alfonso Soriano and Darwin Barney. Soriano is, of course, gone. Barney might have a true-talent BABIP in that range, because he makes so much very weak contact, preferring those choppers and dribblers to whiffs. The other three players listed, though, should get at least a small bump. As a team, the Cubs hit into a bit of bad luck on ground balls last season.

How could that small bump become a big one? The answer isn’t in a swing adjustment or a change of approach, by any of those guys. The answer is that the Cubs have to get on base more.

In 2013, the Cubs’ .300 team on-base percentage was the third-worst in baseball, and second-worst in the National League. Yet, they also led the National League with 487 extra-base hits, including 297 doubles. Add it all up, and the Cubs took the fifth-fewest plate appearances with runners on base of any team in baseball, and the third-fewest with a runner on first and less than two outs.

That matters, as it turns out, because BABIP on ground balls to the right side of second base (where Rizzo, Schierholtz and Valbuena all hit most of theirs) rises by roughly 40 points when there’s a runner on first, according to an article by Dave Allen in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2013. The Cubs didn’t put runners on base, especially in front of this group of lefties, and that contributed to the tough seasons they each had when they hit the ball on the ground.

Don’t worry about the platoon issue. It’s informative, if true, that batters might have a harder time getting the ball through the infield against opposite-handed pitchers, but the superior power and strike-zone control hitters show when they have that edge more than makes up for that issue. Don’t get upset by groundouts from Ryan Sweeney, Justin Ruggiano, Donnie Murphy, George Kottaras or anyone else in 2014. They’re simply the price the team has chosen to pay in order to hit plenty of home runs, maintain the platoon edge and maximize the production of marginally talented players. The real takeaways here, for the Cubs, are that there’s regression (the good kind) coming, and that the quickest way to assuage the frustration of seeing groundout after groundout is to put some people on base and apply pressure to the defense.

Brett Taylor is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation, and can also be found as Bleacher Nation on Twitter and on Facebook.

74 responses to “Guest Post: Anthony Rizzo, Ground-Ball BABIP and the Cubs’ Platoon Disadvantage”

  1. jh03

    Wow, I liked this a lot. Well done, Matt.

    1. hansman

      Just awesome. Excellent.

    2. Funn Dave

      Yes. Great article.

  2. Jim

    Awesome. Good deep dive into a player who’s surface numbers dont tell the whole story.

    1. Eternal Pessimist

      Of course he will next have to go into the next level to show how this doesn’t tell the whole story, and then…

  3. cubsfan08

    Solid read – also – the “92 entries listed include 80 different players” stat is promising. Shows how “fluky” BABIP can be

    Also find the platoon idea interesting. More difficult to get ground ball hits against opposite hand pitcher. Totally makes sense if you ask me, and something I never considered.

  4. Baseball_Writes

    I really enjoyed this article. I think it is good to read posts like this that can explain the nuances of a statistic instead of just repeating the statistic itself and surface definition.

    More of this for sure, Brett.

  5. Sandberg

    Great article. I love this site!

  6. eneuburger92

    I would love to know what percentage of Rizzo’s at bats came against the shift with no one on base… I bet its pretty damn high

    1. Eternal Pessimist

      This might indicate that Rizzo might be a much better #4 hitter. Gives hin a better chance of hitting with baserunners the first go-round.

      1. Danny Ballgame

        Or it could mean that our 1 and 2 had really bad OBP

        1. Eternal Pessimist

          Yeah, that too. I’m sure there is a stat somewhere showing which position in the lineup is likely to have runners on. In the Cubs case, any spot in the line-up had to be pretty awful.

          This is a great case for leading off w/ righties batting at least 1 and 2 before putting a pull-hitting lefty in the line-up. Weren’t they batting Castro/Rizzo 1-2 at the end of the year to get them more AB’s?

          1. Edwin

            Lineup Optimization is a tricky thing. I think according to The Book, it actually makes more sense to have your best hitter bat 2nd or 4th. Batting them 2nd helps to insure more PA, while batting 4th means less PA but possibly more chances to bat with runners on base. Either way though, it’s not going to change your expected runs by that much. Simple luck/sequencing can ruin the best laid plans.

        2. josh ruiter

          I was doing some research with trying to show how the guys in front of a guy impact said guys numers, a la Freeman being behind Upton and Heyward or Schaefer, and the stats did show that….but was anyone else aware how crazy the splits were on Castro this past season? In the 1/2 hole he had a .265/.310/.695 line which is not great but approaches ok, which for a year which saw him be written off by so many suggests he is still a great talent. Anywhere else and he was god awful though. Maybe the long held theory of Castro being a 7ish hitter is bunk. Maybe he is a 2 hitter with gap power and 20 homerun ceiling. But if he is allowed to be who he is and grows into his frame a bit more could he become a 15-20 HR, 15-20 SB good defensive shortstop with capability of consistently posting .290/.335/.750-.775? That would an insanely valuable ss to have…and he could begin that at age 23? Who gives a shit what it looks like or how it happens at that point….to put moneyball to quote loosely, “do we care how gets there? NO, we just want a high OPS!!

          1. josh ruiter

            and that OPS guess is off…if he can put up those numbers, it would suggest a .790-.800…forgive the previous OPS guestimate

          2. Edwin

            I think he’ll settle into a mix between his 2011 and 2012 season, and end up being a 2-3 WAR per season type player. Which is nothing to sneeze at.

  7. MightyBear

    Great article. Great to see someone besides Brett, Luke, Sahadev and the Doc put a post on BN that was well thought out and well supported. Sure beats the player x is 1/3 as good as player y crap we’ve been getting lately in the comments.

  8. Eternal Pessimist

    Thank you for this. I feel redeemed as i had argued a couple months ago that Barney’s low BABIP was due to the extraordinary weakness of his grounders and was rejected soundly by the masses. It is going to be hard to get that OPS up when your ‘liners’ take 5 seconds to reach the shortstop!

  9. DocPeterWimsey

    Kudos, Matt: this is cool and very well done. The only extra thing that I’d love to see are some scatter plots showing 2011 vs. 2012, 2012 vs. 2013, etc. BAoGB: I am betting that the correlations will be pretty low!

    1. Patrick W.

      I imagine that you see scatter plots in your cheerios, Doc :)

      1. Fishin Phil

        Problem with that is the data points keep moving!

        1. IA_Colin

          Then I lay the spoon handle down to form a trendline.

      2. DocPeterWimsey

        um… doesn’t everyone?

        1. Luke

          And that’s why I haven’t eaten Cheerios in a long time.

          No matter where I stuck my spoon, I was biasing the sample. Can’t be having that.

  10. CubFanBob

    Great article Matt

    thanks

  11. Steve

    This new numbers fad is making me ill. I’ll leave them to the nerds and focus on watching and listening.
    All I need to know is that player X hit 25 hrs, drove in 100, batted .280 and didn’t embarasses himself in the field.
    Grab me a beer out of the fridge, please….

    1. IA_Colin

      #Merica

    2. Featherstone

      The tone of your post is downright repulsive. If looking beyond the baseball card stats makes me a “nerd” then perhaps your ignorance makes you a “hick”

      May want to cut back on those beers they seem to be impairing something.

      1. Fishin Phil

        Actually, I think both approaches are valid. It is after all a game, meant to entertain us. Whatever gives the individual the most entertainment is fine with me.

        1. Ivy Eater

          Just seems odd to come to a site like this if you don’t really care about all the extra stuff. This is nerd heaven, and I love it.

      2. IA_Colin

        Hey if a guy can live his life satisfied from the stimulation of beer and a baseball game with “player x” then more power to him. I’m surprised he can watch AND listen at the same time, props. Don’t wanna think too hard, might ruin the buzz.

  12. MichaelD

    I take the point of the article to be that the Cubs should reduce their slugging. They need fewer base-unclogging home runs. :)

    Nice article.

    1. itzscott

      …. and I take the point of the article to be that Rizzo should hit more fly balls because he’s a slow footed pull hitter that will always be likely to be an automatic out if he hits the ball on the ground.

      Then I’ll wait for next year’s analysis which will say that he should hit more ground balls which are more likely to get through as opposed to the easy flys he hits when they aren’t homers.

  13. dkap

    Without having read the Hardball Times article, when combining the 40 point increase in BABIP on ground balls to the right side with runners on base and the rise in importance of getting runners on base (or in this case, keeping runners off base), will we start seeing teams holding less runners on first? So basically, trading a few more stolen bases for a couple more outs?

    1. hansman

      The interesting thing is that a hitters production at the plate goes up the same amount regardless of if there is a speedster or a tub-o-goo at 1B.

      1. DarthHater

        Tub of goo. Ha! Terry Forster. Those were the days…

    2. jawsofvictory

      dkap, good question. Having also not read the hardball times article (which I shall do momentarily) a find it hard to choose between a 4% change in opposing, LF BABIP and the prospects of a runner in scoring position.

      In a non-quantified, beer-y way I thought a lot about a related subject last season. Watching pitchers lose their cool while holding a threatening runner in a close game, I wondered about the risk of even bothering to do so. The difference between a run or not-run in this type of AB is between an extra base hit and every other possibility.

      Of course, the runner, on average, stands a decent chance of being thrown out at second (I’ll just say 20% because I don’t want to look it up right now). Let’s say the batter is an lefty, pull-hitting all-star hitter of .300/.###/.500 (dream Rizzo, let’s say). Roughly speaking, at first, the runner has a 20% chance of scoring during the current AB, and a 30% chance at second. The act of attempting the steal reduces these chances to 0% and 26% respectively, ceteris paribus (clearly, adjust for the individual baserunner, situational and platoon splits). Being very casual and assumptive, a 4%/”40 point” rise in BABIP for left field ground balls combined with the attempted steal would change the percentages to 0% and 27%.

      1. jawsofvictory

        …half written reply. Cooking dinner.

  14. Diehardthefirst

    Then why didn’t the FO anticipate this flaw in Rizzos game before trading for him? Can’t return him like he’s a defective microwave oven

  15. MichiganGoat

    Great article well done.

  16. JC Martin

    Thanks for a comprehensive analysis. But the date of decline referenced in the first paragraph (May 12, 2013) does not correspond to what I saw with my eyes. I thought Rizzo experienced his worst decline after the Cubs traded Soriano. It appeared to me he was seeing fewer good pitches to hit, and he got in a habit of chasing more balls out of the strike zone. Is there anything in the numbers to confirm what I observed with my eyes?

    1. woody

      I agree with that 100%. I have been saying the same thing over and over again. They simply pitched around Rizzo. I also think he should have made an attempt to hit the ball up the middle more. He was trying to pull everything. I know he can take the ball the other way because I have seen him do it Same thing with Barney. I remember he used to get alot of doubles slapping the ball down the right field line. I think he and Rizzo were getting pull happy, and I wonder how much of that had to do with the hitting coaches? They put the shift on Rizzo and pounded the ball inside.

    2. hansman

      Well your eyes are lying to you.

      May 20 (his peak OPS) through July 26 (Soriano trade) OPS: .670

      July 27 through end of the season OPS: .706

      1. hansman

        And my eyes lied to me. His peak OPS was on May 11.

        May 12 through July 26 OPS: .677

        1. Patrick W.

          While you’re looking, break out the OBP and SLG numbers. A higher OBP *could* “support” that he was being pitched around.

          1. hansman

            Have to do everything…don’t I?

            BST: .312

            AST: .313

            THERE’S THE PROOF!!!! HE WAS BEING PITCHED AROUND!!!! LINEUP PROTECTION IS CONFIRMED!!!!

            confirmed_7-1.jpg

            1. Patrick W.

              Thank you.

          2. hansman

            Mmm:

            BST: .207 BA
            AST: .226 BA

            He was trying to carry the team without Soriano…

            1. Patrick W.

              Could you get his wRC+ for the same time frames? Thanks in advance.

              1. hansman

                It was:

                BST: More than -999
                AST: Less than 999

                1. Patrick W.

                  I feel like you might be reading it wrong, but if not that’s quite swing.

                  Thank you.

        2. DarthHater

          “And my eyes lied to me.”

          That’s what you get for trying to surf baseball stats and cheeseburger porn at the same time.

          1. hansman

            That’s where I got hung up…May 20 is the birthday of the hamburger

    3. CubFan Paul

      “It appeared to me he was seeing fewer good pitches to hit”

      Yes, he received a lot of (borderline) “strikes” away from him on the right side of the zone that he thought were balls.

      “he got in a habit of chasing more balls out of the strike zone”

      Not actually. Rizzo had to adjust to those borderline calls away from him by trying to lift those balls into LeftField for easy singles/doubles.

      Your eyes are fine. & because he started making those adjustments last season, Rizzo and the coaches have film, so he should be much better babip-wise this season.

  17. Joshua Edwards

    Fantastic. Loved this article for the great insights and good questions worth exploring–many thanks Matt! I want to read more!

    (And thanks to Brett for sharing it with us.)

  18. lapdawg

    Very interesting analysis-thanks.

    Here is what bothers me though. His low GBBABIP results in a stat line that is considered a “miserable” season.

    With partial regression towards the mean, his stat line improves to the point where he “bounces back” and becomes a “solid player”.

    However, the regression only translates to 8 more hits in an entire season. That’s roughly one hit every 20 games making him go from miserable to solid. What am I missing here? How many WAR do 9 more total bases translate to?

    Also 4/23 Cubs on the list vs a random chance of a team having a plater on the list of 0.71 translates to a relative risk that a Cub makes the list of 5.6.

    Maybe they just need to mow the infield.

    1. hansman

      His gbbabip is only a portion of the puzzle.

    2. headscratchin

      Interesting that on the 2013 list of worst BABIP on ground balls that there were 4 cubs players. None of those 4 were on the list for the other years listed. With Soriano gone, if the other 3 move back towards the mean, our offense would be improved, by maybe 20 hits?? And how many of those ground ball outs were actually double plays? How many more AB would we have had with runners on?

      That’s not going to put us at a 90 win team, but it does help paint a little more optimistic picture.

  19. drcub1908

    Help me please is this saying that with some adjustments from Rizzo that he can bump
    up his average.? Or statistically he should improve based on the law of averages??

    1. hansman

      Both. If you were to replay the 2013 season exactly you could expect regression to the mean. However, baseball is a game of adjustments.

  20. OlderStyle

    Cool article. I find it odd, though, that David Ortiz is not on the worst GBBABIP list. Lefty pull hitter-check. Slow runner-check.

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  22. Tmfelso

    Great article, love the subsequent dialogue in the comments section as well. If we can agree somewhere in the middle that Rizzo ran into bad luck on ground balls partially due to not enough runners on in front of him and/or he had to shoulder the offense after Soriano’s departure, what can we expect from him for this season? A positive regression on groundballs (hopefully) but little in the way of help on offense with someone else in the lineup capable of protecting his bat?

    1. DarthHater

      Rizzo is already doing a pretty good job of protecting his own bat by avoiding any solid contact between said bat and any fast-moving projectiles in his vicinity. :-P

  23. mikelach13

    Great read! Thanks Matt!

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