Anthony Rizzo had a rough start to the season, uncharacteristic for him, but a blistering hot June had him nearly back to where he typically is at the plate on the year, and the “what’s up with Rizzo?” storyline kinda faded as others increased in prominence.
With a lotta down days recently, though, folks have once again started wondering “what’s up with Rizzo?”, as the Cubs’ first baseman has slashed just .217/.303/.311 (65 wRC+) over the past month. Rizzo’s walk rate is down (8.2%), his power is way down (.094 ISO), and very few of his batted balls are falling in for hits (.231 BABIP).
Over any month stretch, though, those things can be true without it suggesting a fundamental and underlying problem for a player. Given how Kris Bryant was playing through his shoulder injury for a month that coincided with a serious power outage, however, I can understand why the wondering – perhaps about Rizzo’s back, which sent him to the DL earlier this year – would be fresh on folks’ minds.
But we don’t currently have any information on an injury for Rizzo, so while I can grant that it’s on folks’ minds for circumstantial reasons, all we can really do is look at the numbers.
During this down stretch for Rizzo, it’s not too difficult to pair his lack of production with a couple underlying numbers: his hard contact rate (31.2%) is well below league average (35.5%), and his groundball rate (49.5%) is well above league average (43.4%). If you’re not hitting it as consistently hard as the league AND putting it on the ground much more than the league, then your power and batting average are gonna take a nose dive. You probably also won’t be taking as many walks as usual, not only because of the pressing that might occur, but also because pitchers will be a little more comfortable around the zone.
Overall on the year, Rizzo’s power is way down, yes, but his groundball rate is actually down for the year, and his hard contact rate is only slightly down. His line drive rate is way up, and his soft contact rate is way down. So, actually, now looking at it that way … what’s up with the .240/.336/.400 (98) slash line? What is going on?
Well, I do think there’s some bad luck in there on balls in play. The .239 BABIP is by far a career low, and I don’t immediately see reasons in his other numbers to suggest that BABIP is wholly earned. Moreover, Statcast’s metrics impute an expected batting average for Rizzo of .291, when he’s actually at just .240. By that metric, he’s the 4th unluckiest hitter in all of baseball.
He’s also been unlucky by Statcast’s expected slugging metric, though not quite by as extreme a measure – he’s under what you’d expect by 71 points, tied for 39th most unlucky in baseball.
Put another way, if Rizzo were getting the results – in total – that you’d expect to see from someone with Rizzo’s batted ball data by Statcast, he’d have a .369 wOBA, which is better than his career mark, and only about 10 points off his wOBA the last few years. So there’s a statistical argument that there’s nothing to see here except bad luck.
Do I think that’s *all* that’s going on? Well, it’s harder for me to shake the idea that Rizzo is fighting something this year – whether physical or mechanical – given the wild swing in his batted ball rates:
As would be the case with any player, you’re gonna seek peaks and valleys in everything. But there’s something about the rapidity with which the rates are changing on Rizzo’s fly ball, groundball, and line drive rates this year that just looks odd to me, especially that groundball rate. The changes in the rates look like they’re happening very rapidly for a 30-game rolling average, moreso than in the last couple years. It just feels like there would be actual changes at the plate that inform those movements, either in the swing itself, or in the way pitchers are approaching him. That huge change – in both directions – in the groundball rate. It’s just sticking with me.
As for why it’s happening, I can’t say for certain, though I did notice one pitch type creeping up against Rizzo over this same stretch when his groundball rate has gone up: the changeup. It’s the kind of pitch you often see used to neutralize lefties, and its downward movement could be causing more grounders for a guy who tends not to swing-and-miss. So maybe some of the recent change has been an uptick in changeups? And if so, you’d figure a guy like Rizzo would adjust soon enough.
Otherwise, maybe it’s just a combination of a little of that, and a little fluky nothing. All we know is that the results aren’t there on the year, Rizzo’s probably been extremely unlucky, but he’s also not been making great contact over the past month.