The Way Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras Were "Bad" in 2020 Gives Me Optimism About Them in 2021

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The Way Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras Were “Bad” in 2020 Gives Me Optimism About Them in 2021

Chicago Cubs

The debate on how much, if even at all, to weigh 2020 numbers in player evaluations and 2021 projections has been a theme around baseball all offseason. Two weeks back, Michael gave you some reasons to remain optimistic about Anthony Rizzo moving forward. I’m going to add to that conversation – and lump Willson Contreras into it – with a demonstration on how a tiny slump here and a bit of bad luck there could have impacted numbers beyond the point of reliability. For everyone, yes, but maybe especially for those two.

In no world should the following ever be true: among hitters who faced at least 600 fastballs last year, Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo were the two worst hitters in the league (by wOBA) – numbers one and two – against pitches that Baseball Savant defines as “fastballs” and over the “heart” of the plate (among hitters that faced 600+ pitches). Willson went 10-for-46 (.218 wOBA) against pitches that met this criteria, while Rizzo went 11-for-53 (.227 wOBA).

Against the meatballiest of meatballs, two of the Cubs’ best hitters were the league’s literal worst in 2020.

My point here is not to introduce this statistic as meaningful in any way, it’s the opposite: to point out the absurdity of the overall numbers based on absurd anecdotal evidence. One thing that will separate good and bad organizations this year will be their pro scouting department’s abilities to use the eye test to find any real meaning in the 2020 games. And I’m confident that any pro scout would tell you that neither Contreras nor Rizzo have developed any bad habits in their game that should impact their ability to hit baseball’s easiest pitch.

Yesterday, for instance, each crushed a fastball:

You don’t have to be a scout or sabermatrician to see the outlier in their numbers against those fastballs in the heart of the plate.

Willson, Rizzo wOBA Versus Middle Fastballs:

SeasonContrerasRizzo
2017.429.438
2018.347.353
2019.497.425
2020.215.223

The median qualifying hitter had a .333 batting average and .615 slugging percentage against this pitch type in 2020, and had Rizzo and Contreras matched those marks in just those tiny 50 at-bat samples, I believe it would have a psychological effect on how we-the-fans think of their 2020 (and their future potential). Heck, converting five of those outs to hits and Contreras’ batting average jumps 27 points. Twenty-seven! And just saying, but .270 looks a lot better than .243 on the back of a baseball card.

And I don’t have to search that hard to find five 100+ mph outs from the backstop:

Of course, the players are not blameless here. While I think talent wins out over a 162-game sample, there were some issues. Rizzo, for instance, took the fifth-most called strike fastballs both in the heart of the plate and in a hitter’s count. He seemed to be slightly off the perfect balance in the patience versus aggressiveness pendulum (something noted broadly as a team issue in Sahadev Sharma’s piece discussed this morning in the Bullets). Contreras, for whatever reason, had difficulty elevating those pitches. Undeniably, they need to execute better.

There is also little reason to believe that they will not. The difference between 60 games and 162 games is two-fold: it better allows for regression to the mean in the luck department, but it also allows players’ true talent to win out. When it does for Anthony and Willson, I’m confident we’ll see better performances against fastballs, and in turn, better performances overall.


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Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.