The Chicago Cubs lost last night, forcing an NLDS Game 4 tonight, but it wasn’t without trying. They scored five runs, made a number of sterling defensive plays, and battled hard late into the evening and early morning.
Unfortunately, they also left 18 men on base, went 2-11 with runners in scoring position, and managed to squeak just two baserunners in the 15 plate appearances following Kris Bryant’s 9th-inning heroics.
And while baseball is always going to be a team effort, there was one player in particular who was uncharacteristically stifled all night long: Anthony Rizzo.
Except, maybe it’s not so uncharacteristic. After all, Rizzo has struggled so far in the 2016 (admittedly short-lived/small sample) postseason, and did last year, as well. So let’s try to discern what exactly is going on with the Cubs’ lefty slugger, and see if it’s something that might change.
First and absolutely foremost, every single thing that follows falls under the EXTREME small sample size problem/warning. Rizzo had just 35 plate appearances in the 2015 postseason and is at just 13 here in 2016. We know – with 100 percent certainty – that he is an extremely talented offensive force, who’s annually close to rivaling anyone in baseball. Got it? Okay, good.
That said, he did really struggle throughout the 2015 postseason. In 35 plate appearances, Rizzo managed just six hits (.188 average), two walks and a HBP (.257 OBP), and two extra base hits (.343 slugging) for a final slash line of .188/.257/.343 in the games that matter most. He also struck out eight times. Given the inherent difficulty of impacting the game defensively from first base, he really needs to hit to provide value in the postseason.
And while were not too deeply into the 2016 postseason quite yet, Rizzo has not gotten off to a good start. In his first three games, Rizzo has gone hitless and walk-less in his first 13 plate appearances, while striking out three times in the process. Last night, for example, he went 0-6 with two Ks, and left four men on base. Worse, he looked off at the plate – flailing at pitches away, allowing strikes to float by – to an extent we aren’t used to seeing from Rizzo.
After the game, Rizzo addressed his issues with the media, but doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong in particular.
“It’s baseball,” Rizzo said after Game 3, per ESPN. “Obviously had not the best three games to start. Just get back tomorrow and play.”
Indeed, Rizzo is right. An 0-13 during the regular season would hardly deserve a passing glance, but obviously an 0-6 in an extra-inning clinching/elimination game draws a few more eyes. Even still, I’m not quite sure it’s anything to be worried about. You hate to see one of your key offensive contributors slump at the worst possible time, but you’d hate it even more if he began to change what makes him, well, him.
According to Manager Joe Maddon, that’s not the case.
When asked if Rizzo might be pressing, given the importance of these games, his role, etc., Maddon responded with a no.
“I talk to these guys a lot before they go up there because I stand in that corner of the dugout, and he seems to be fine,” Maddon told ESPN. “I don’t see him pressing.”
He did suggest that Rizzo may be extending out of his zone a bit (which I think was pretty clear, by my eye), but Maddon doesn’t see any intrinsic problem. After speaking with Rizzo and observing his behavior and at-bats, Maddon is not at all concerned. And maybe we shouldn’t be either.
Obviously, the issue of “clutch” is/has been hotly debated in recent years, but I don’t think we need to retread that argument. Anthony Rizzo is good in small situations and Anthony Rizzo is good in huge situations, because he’s Anthony Rizzo. He’s annual MVP candidate, who just finished his third consecutive season with at least a 145 wRC+, 384 wOBA, and 5.2+ WAR.
He’s the guy you want in there tonight, and he’s borderline *the* guy you want in there always. Give him some time, and he will start producing. Hopefully as soon as tonight. If anyone has earned a longer leash, it’s Anthony Rizzo.