Rizzo and Russell Have Struggled, But Improvement is Always Just a Game Away

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Rizzo and Russell Have Struggled, But Improvement is Always Just a Game Away

Chicago Cubs

anthony rizzo feature

The 2016 Postseason has been pretty good to both the Chicago Cubs and their fans.

While we’ve (and I’ll just quickly lump us all in with the Cubs themselves) experienced our fair share of heart-breaking moments, near-misses, and plain-old losses, there have been far more good times than bad.

But it isn’t all roses on the North Side, even as the team inches as close to the World Series as they have been since 2003.

Two players in particular, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell, have struggled mightily at the plate this October, without showing much sign of life in the process. And while each has admittedly been on the wrong end of a couple of extremely small sample sizes, they also happen to be the number 3 and 5 hitters in the lineup of an NLCS team – where production is non-negotiable.

But, for the most part, we know what each hitter is capable of (a lot), so let’s check back in on two of our regular season heroes, and see if there’s anything good under the hood.

Let’s start with Addison Russell.

Through six starts at shortstop for the Cubs this October, Addison Russell has recorded just one hit and no walks (plus one HBP) through 23 plate appearances. I would like to point out, in advance of breaking these numbers down further, that 9 of those 24 plate appearances came against the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and Johnny Cueto. And while that’s not an excuse in and of itself (after all, you have to hit in the playoffs, and that’s frequently going to be against good pitching), it certainly makes things a bit more understandable. Anyway, let’s take a closer look at those numbers:

Addison Russell NLDS, NLCS 2016:

  • 23 plate appearances
  • .045/.087/.045
  • 13.0% strikeout rate
  • 0.00% walk rate

Well, alrighty then. While yes, it’s true that he hasn’t done much with his 23 opportunities in the heart of the Cubs’ lineup, the sample size is not only too small to get worried, it’s too small to even analyze. Sure, he’s not striking out, but just one more strikeout would raise his rate by over four percentage points, one less and it’s four percentage points in the other direction. And do any of us really believe he’s never going to take a walk? Of course not.

He certainly has not looked like himself at the plate – and in this case, that may be the more important analytical tool – but facing really good pitchers can do that to you. In the end, I’m not worried about Russell for the remainder of the NLCS for five distinct reasons:

  1. He’s only struck out 3 times in 23 plate appearance, which is notable because
  2. He’s working with just a .053 BABIP, and is
  3. Still seeing nearly as many Pitches/PA (3.70) as he did in the regular season (3.91).
  4. Separately, 9 of his 23 plate appearances have come against Kershaw, Cueto, and Bumgarner, which is important, because
  5. He should have much more favorable match-ups over the next two days (likely Rich Hill and Julio Urias).

It’s not the deep statistical dive we usually like to take, but with just 23 plate appearances, this is the best we can do. And for what it’s worth, Russell suggested that he’s “seeing the ball fine,” and is “not striking out.” Adding the he’s simply been out in front of a few balls, as pitchers adjust to his approach. As long as he keeps seeing his fair share of pitches, while refusing to strikeout, the hits will come and his postseason numbers will turn around.

And the story isn’t much different for Anthony Rizzo.

Through six starts at first base for the Cubs this October, Anthony Rizzo has also recorded just one hit, but has added three walks (and six strikeouts) through 26 plate appearances. I’d argue that he has looked much less like himself at the plate than anyone on the Cubs this offseason, but he claims he’s seeing the ball fine, despite having some of the worst match-ups (and frankly, swings) possible.

Remember those three difficult pitchers Russell had to face (Kershaw, Cueto, and Bumgarner)? Well, Rizzo faced them a total of 9 times too, but added 3 more plate appearances against fellow lefty Matt Moore and another one against Kenley Jansen. In total, that’s 9 plate appearances against lefties (Kershaw, Bumgarner, Moore), 3 against one of the best starters in the NL (Cueto) and 1 against arguably the best closer in baseball (Jansen). In other words, Anthony Rizzo stepped up to the plate with a decided disadvantage* (more so than a hitter usually faces) in 50% of his plate appearances so far (13 of 26).

Anthony Rizzo NLDS, NLCS 2016:

  • 26 plate appearances
  • .043/.154/.043
  • 23.1% strikeout rate
  • 11.5% walk rate

I will say that Rizzo has looked more lost at the plate than Russell, which is probably evidenced by his 23.1% strikeout rate, and he’ll need to turn that around. He’s averaged a 15.5% strikeout rate over the past two seasons, but a 23%+ K-rate this October. That number should move a lot with even the slightest change in outcomes over the next few days, so I wouldn’t fret just yet, but it is rather disappointing – especially from the guy who’s approach we often consider to be the most polished/advanced on the team.

To be fair, Rizzo is also dealing with an abnormally and unsustainably low BABIP (.059), while still seeing almost exactly as many pitches per plate appearance (3.92) now, as he did during the regular seasons of 2015 (3.93) and 2016 (3.93). He needs to make more hard contact and press a little less, but there is at least some reason to believe the best is still ahead of him (mostly because there’s only one way to go from here).

The Cubs will likely face two more lefties over the next two games (Rich Hill tomorrow and Julio Urias on Wednesday), but neither are anywhere near the caliber pitcher of Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner). So if you’re looking for the bright side in all of this, consider that a beat-up Rich Hill and a barely-20-year-old Julio Urias should be the hittable type of lefties (for Rizzo, at least) heading into Games 3 and 4.

The Cubs have managed to squeak out some wins without offensive contributions from their three and five hitters so far, but that luck will not last forever. But despite the legitimate struggles, there is reason to believe improvement is on the way. Hopefully, it arrives sooner rather than later.

*Rizzo has hit lefties fine in 2016 (126 wRC+), but he’s been far, far better against right handed pitchers (154 wRC+).

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami