(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire)
When looking over the (qualified) top hitting first basemen in Major League Baseball using wRC+, you have to go all the way down to 23rd to find Anthony Rizzo. As of May 18th, the top-ranked hitter is Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants. Since 2014, Rizzo hasn’t finished below sixth in first basemen offensive production. To say that Rizzo looks at his 2018 output with anathema is probably an accurate statement.
First, the oddity; his predisposition to be hit by pitches. A lot of that has to do with how much Rizzo crowds the plate which is a decent factor in his on-base productivity. Since 2014, he’s been hit 85 times, an average of 21.2 per year! The next man up, Brandon Guyer, has been hit 74 times. The number drops significantly when you reach Derek Dietrich at number 3 with 65 HBPs. Following that, everyone sort of blends in together. One of the several other aspects of Rizzo’s 2018 where we can’t seem to find a hiccup, this season he sits at number two (eight HBP) with one less than teammate Kris Bryant.
Rizzo is a respected hitter. He’s regularly top-10 in the least amount of pitches thrown in the zone. He keeps company with some free-swingers (Matt Adams, Ryan Howard, Jose Abreu); the types of hitters that a pitcher can work around because they know they’ll get them to chase. With a hitter like Rizzo (4th overall in OBP, 11th in BB% 2014-17) who doesn’t have the propensity to chase (15th in O-Swing%) and likes to work counts (27th in Z-Swing%), you’d think they’d attack him a little more aggressively. He does hit for average but not as much as the six other first basemen that best him in that territory; there is a decent drop-off in batting average once you get to Rizzo. He’s still working counts while seeing more pitches hit the strike zone, and is currently tied for first (with Miguel Rojas) in contact rate.
The Cubs have had seven postponed games scattered around 2018 with three games called in a span of four days early last month. Inconsistent playing time or weather cop-outs aren’t legitimate excuses. There isn’t sufficient proof of cold and/or wet weather being an influence on Rizzo’s offensive yield. Reading several interviews in regards to his problematic start, he’s given no indication of frustration and is taking it all in stride. He’s a patient person on and off the field and has always presented a positive demeanor. The Cubs are still winning a fair share of ballgames and Rizzo has a great supporting cast.
So what the heck is causing Rizzo’s 2018 to become such an anomaly compared to his previous seasonal performance?
Rizzo is struggling mightily through 143 plate appearances; .301 OBP, 83 wRC+, and a negative win probability added in terms of leverage index; all of which are highly uncharacteristic. However, during the past couple of weeks, Rizzo’s OBP has shown signs of improvement; .305 for the last 28 days, .370 during the last 14 days, and .333 through the last week. Chart 1 displays Rizzo’s career monthly OBP with his current figures in black.
Strikeouts are not Rizzo’s issue as he’s currently 2% lower than his career K%. He’s also walking less so that tells us he’s making a lot more contact which is exemplified by his 86% contact rate; almost 5% higher than his career average. He’s not swinging as much, either, and has been a bit more selective despite the fact he’s seeing more pitches in the strike zone than he has in his entire career. Additionally, his swinging strike rate (6.1%) is his lowest to date.
So Rizzo is seeing the ball better, apparently, and making better choices when it comes to his plate discipline. As you can see in Chart 2, his swings out of the zone are much lower (and trending down) while his zone contact is has been elevated, yet somewhat volatile.
A basic overview of his hitting metrics shows he’s pulling the ball much more than he normally does and at the expense of his opposite field contact. You can see in the following three graphics where Rizzo is hitting the ball and what becomes of the contact.
Rizzo has always been a high OBP guy (see Chart 1) with a lot of power; at least 30 home runs since 2014. We have an issue with that when looking at his fly ball rates as well as the ratio of home runs he’s hitting under that type of contact. Currently, Rizzo’s FB% is a good 5% higher, while his HR/FB rate is well below normal. Furthermore, his groundball rate to fly ball rate has always teetered around a 1:1 quotient; not the case in 2018. As for line drives, he’s hitting those a lot less and is yielding that deficit to his fly balls.
So what’s up with his Statcast metrics? Honestly, nothing when it comes to his contact. No deviation from his 2015-2017 average launch angle (~1° increase in 2018) and his current exit velocity is nearly 2 MPH higher than his previous three seasons. Rizzo’s hard-hit rate is right where it ought to be but he’s not barrelling the ball as much; five barrels in 101 batted ball events for a -3.6% deviation from his average.
Both his xwOBA and xBA are down quite a bit, too. Despite his woeful batting average (.195) and BABIP that sits nearly 100 points below his norm, he’s only expected to be hitting for league-average. While Rizzo has never been known to be a high average hitter, he’s always been much better than the league median.
Since we are forced to dig a bit deeper, let’s examine two things. First, Rizzo’s count figures; is he getting himself into bad counts that force him to change his approach? For his career, Rizzo has a .223 OBP when behind in the count, .314 under even counts, and a .550 OBP when he’s ahead. The same trend follows in 2018, although not exactly, the proclivity hasn’t swayed. The count he sees himself in more is 2-1. Following that count, Rizzo has a .452 OBP with a 24% strikeout rate. In 2018, his OBP is .188 and he’s striking out 39% of the time under those same conditions. Is there anything to that? Probably not and we could chalk that up to random fluctuation, yet it’s still a bit vexing to see that juxtaposition.
Another issue is Rizzo’s contact when facing the shift. 60% of the pitches Rizzo faces are under that defensive alignment, compared to 50% over the past three seasons. Given the Cubs’ lack of (expected) offense, the increase could be the result of nothing more than runners not being on base nearly as much. Regardless, Rizzo’s batting average against the shift (.192) is .079 points lower than his expected average (.271). The latter coincides with his three-year .275 xBA under the shift. Perhaps we’re onto something here.
Using his three-year average, Rizzo’s exit velocity, when shifted on, is 88.3 MPH; this season its 92.1 MPH. Interesting. His launch angle this year is 17.9° while his previous three years saw a 15.5° average LA. So he’s hitting the ball higher, which could lend itself to hitting over the shift more, perhaps, and his contact is strong. What’s more, is he’s not even pulling the ball into the shift at a high rate compared to the other directions he’s driving the ball (See Chart 6).
Rizzo is capable of going opposite-field and has done so just as much in the last several seasons. The kicker, here, is that his Pull% is pretty elevated in 2018. Despite his Statcast metrics involving the shift, he’s being held in check under those circumstances.
One last thing worth noting is the fact that Rizzo is having a really hard time with left-handed pitching. Normally, his OBP is .348 but in 2018 it’s .224. So how much of an impact is pitcher handedness having on Rizzo? Not much, actually. He’s only faced left-handed pitching 30% of his at-bats. And looking over whom he’s faced doesn’t exactly send shivers down your spine.
No matter how great a player is, they are going to have times when their performance inexplicably drops. Currently mired in a 1-for-14 slump, Rizzo is making it hard to see the forest for the trees. The only advice I could give him is to swing more, take some chances to try and break out of this early lull. Regardless, Rizzo’s been playing a such a high level through most of his career so for him to falter like this sounds an alarm. But you can’t buy into it; Rizzo is giving us no reason to believe it will continue, especially when looking at his meek BABIP and xStats.
This is a really great article. He’s definitely shown signs of breaking out of this, which is what your data predicted to happen. Interestingly, the last few years Rizz has been a very streaky hitter, despite his end of the season slashlines remaining fairly consistent and extremely impressive.