After getting off to an extremely slow start – thanks, in part, to a back injury that landed him on the disabled list – Anthony Rizzo has begun to turn things around here lately.
In fact, through the first twelve days of May, Rizzo was slashing .342/.381/.789 with five homers and figured to finally be putting his early-season struggles behind him. Unfortunately, he’s gone hitless in the 16 plate appearances that followed that stretch (though he did walk four times), so I think it’s time we take a little peek behind the curtain to see what, if anything, is going on.
But before we even do that, let me just say upfront, that I think Rizzo will probably just be fine by the end of the season. In all likelihood, his early season struggles will eventually be classified by a future version of myself as some combination of small-sample size flukiness, the back injury, and the attendant inconsistent playing time. He’s been far too good and far too consistent for so long to suddenly break at the plate. It’s just not happening.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that stand out.
When I look at Rizzo’s numbers from a distance, the first thing I notice compared to last season is his 7.7% walk rate. That number is WELL below the 13.2% high-water mark he posted last year and solidly below his career 11.2% average. Similarly, Rizzo’s 14.7% strikeout rate, while still fantastic, is a bit higher than the 13.0% mark he posted last season. Neither number is terrible, but because each is worse than last year – and because they can say a whole lot about a player’s plate appearances – they deserve some isolated attention.
Surprisingly, given his low walk rate, Rizzo is swinging at pitches out of the zone at the lowest rate of his career (24.6%). That’s roughly 6 percentage points lower than last season, 7 percentage points lower than his career mark, and one of the lower rates in baseball. In similarly surprising fashion (again, given his depressed walk rate), Rizzo is swinging at more pitches in the zone than he has since 2012 (his first season with the Cubs). As far as organizing the strike zone and recognizes pitches, Rizzo appears to be at the top of his game. My guess, based on this data and Rizzo’s history, is that his walk rate is going to shoot up soon enough.
In a similarly confusing fashion, the other half of Rizzo’s plate discipline data – contact – doesn’t show us what we might expect. Rizzo’s contact on pitches both in and out of the zone this season is actually up. Meanwhile, his first pitch strike rate is down and his swinging strike rate is the lowest it’s ever been.
According to Brooks Baseball, Rizzo’s whiff rate against hard stuff, breaking stuff, and offspeed stuff are all at their absolute lowest levels. Breaking it down differently, Rizzo’s whiff rate against right-handers is basically half what it usually is and his whiff rate against lefties is about as low as ever. There is some evidence that he’s whiffing at higher rates on pitches above the strike zone compared to the rest of his career, but we’re talking about such small samples (3 whiffs in 16 pitches) that it’s nothing but noise for now.
At this point, I have to admit, these numbers are not what I was expecting to see, but they are what we are.
After adjusting to this data, I’m now starting to wonder if the Cubs team-wide problem of sacrificing too much power for contact when runners are on base is something affecting Rizzo more than most. After all, more than half of Rizzo’s plate appearances (52.4%) have come with runners on base, and if the team as a whole were trying to move toward much more contact with runners on base, Rizzo is the kind of capable hitter who could no doubt increase his contact if that’s specifically what he was looking to do.
At first glance, you see a .262/.347/.385 slash line with runners on base and a .121/.250/.328 slash line with the bases empty, and you assume he’s doing much better with runners on base. But then you see the contact rates and the absurdly low BABIP with the bases empty, and I think those slash lines are a bit misleading.
So let’s talk about some of the quality of contact stuff.
Well, as we could’ve probably guessed, Anthony Rizzo’s .163 ISO (overall) is the lowest of his Cubs career. However, his 34.0% hard-hit rate is actually better than his career average (and right in line, if not better than, his best seasons) while his soft-hit rate is actually lower than ever. So, again, in general, Rizzo is still hitting the ball hard. That’s a good sign.
When runners are on base, however, Rizzo’s hard contact rate absolutely plummets to 22.2% – and, remember, that has been in over half of his plate appearances. Naturally, his ISO (.123) and SLG (.385) both drop with it. That tracks what’s happening with the team as a whole, but when it’s happening this extremely with one of the most important hitters in the lineup, it really stands out.
So maybe it is really this simple (and frustrating). Maybe the problem Brett discovered yesterday is just impacting Rizzo more than most. After all, when the bases are empty, Rizzo’s hard-hit rate rockets back up to 46.9% while his ISO sits at .207. Moreover, he’s actually been extremely unlucky during those base-runner-less plate appearances (.067 BABIP), especially given how hard he’s been smoking the ball.
Right now, the results for Anthony Rizzo are extremely different when runners are on base, versus when the bases are empty. And since I don’t think Rizzo’s got an issue with “being clutch,” it’s unreasonable to wonder if there’s an approach element at play here.
Thankfully, given the early stage of the season and the quality of the hitter, there’s no reason to believe these numbers cannot and will not change as the season goes on. Moreover, if you absolutely had to come up with a singular explanation for these odd numbers – and his overall underperformance so far – you’d probably have to be intentionally glib and just say “small sample size” and move on.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.