We move up the diamond a little to first base, where we find the Cubs captain. It should have been such an inspirational story, and yet the Cubs found a way to fuck up Anthony Rizzo hitting the shit out of the ball on one leg in a series they had to have. Instead they got swept. There’s your season right there. Let’s go through The Main Ingredient’s 2019…
27 HR 89 RBI
11.6 BB% 14.0 K%
.390 wOBA 141 wRC+ .925 OPS
-6.9 Defensive Runs Saved
Tell Me A Story: If I told you in March that Rizz would set a career-high in batting average and on-base, and have his best slugging in three years, you’d probably think the Cubs got a hell of a lot closer to 90 wins than they did. You’d probably think they’d have been over it. It wasn’t discussed much before the season, but Rizzo had something of a small slide in ’17 and ’18, especially 2018 where everything had dipped below the level he had set (such as .380+ OBP or .500+ slugging and such). As I will probably say with every review here, we don’t know how much to slide the bars for the baseball filled with gremlins, but we can safely assume this was a bounce-back year for Rizzo. Even if he didn’t need that much bouncing back.
Rizz was able to raise his line-drive rate, which is good. But his fly ball count went down and his ground-ball rate went up because of it, which is less than good. According to Baseball Savant, there was a significant drop in his launch angle this year. Now that could be an intentional adjustment Rizzo made to hit more line drives, or it could be something else which would start to push you toward frowny-face. Also, even with the ball as it was, Rizzo’s exit-velocity didn’t really move from last year, which is curious. Which also plays into how the Cubs as a team just didn’t hit the ball very hard. If he were doing the same things, you’d think that would jump up even a little just given the nature of the thing. Still, it’s not like Rizzo heavily outperformed his expected batting average or weighted on-base, hitting those on the nose with his actual numbers this season.
If there was a big difference in Rizzo this year, it was his work on bendy stuff. Rizzo came into 2019 with a career average of .235 on sliders, .259 on curveballs, and .294 on cutters (which are really just baby sliders). Those numbers this year were .294, .305, and .429 with much higher slugging as well. And it doesn’t appear to be noise either as all three of those have much higher line-drive percentages than his career norms, so this was something Rizzo was focusing on.
Even more encouraging, considering Rizzo’s age, is that he was deadly on inside pitches this year. Here’s his career slugging by zone before the year and then this year:
You don’t think of Rizzo yanking outside pitches over the wall, because he stands so close to the plate it doesn’t look like they’re outside pitches. This year he turned on the pitches that jammed him even more. The worry with players crossing the age-30 threshold is that they can’t catch up to velocity and can get jammed inside. Neither of those things were a problem for Rizz this year.
If there are red flags with Rizzo, it’s health. 6-4 first-basemen who have had back issues for three straight years now should make anyone breathe a little deeper for a moment. This year was by far the most amount of games he’s missed. Some of that was due to a freak ankle injury, which isn’t anything chronic. The rest was the back issue in August and April, and now that he’s in his 30s that’s probably just going to be a thing that happens. When it starts to slow down his performance, that’s anyone’s guess.
Contract: Rizzo has two team-option years left at $16.5M each.
Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: Face it, there would be a small to medium uprising if the Cubs ever thought of moving Rizzo. Given his production and salary, he would have huge value of course, but this is essentially the heart and soul of the team. The real debate will be in two years when he’s a free agent and also 32, but let’s table that as long as we can. Given his adjustments, it’s hard to see Rizzo falling off a table production-wise in 2020, unless that back causes him to miss more than just 10-15 games a year.
Perhaps the only thing new we’d want to see from Rizzo is something we can’t quantify and don’t actually see–which means we’re only guessing–is his leadership of the team. It’s not that he isn’t a leader, because he’s THE one. But this team played loose all year, in the bad way, and we know that Maddon’s style caused some of that. But players should hold their teammates accountable too, and Rizzo hasn’t really been that type of guy. He’s a loose, fun dude too. And while he might seem boisterous to us from the outside and leading things in the dugout, those in the know will tell you he’s not really a hard ass ever or trying to keep the team coloring within the lines. That’s mostly going to come from the new manager, but it wouldn’t hurt that if inside the clubhouse there’s a sword that needs swinging, it’s Rizzo who’s doing it. But this is nothing more than a minor complaint or tweak.
While we read too much about trades that didn’t work out for the Cubs, remember the Cashner-for-Rizzo one helped get Josh Byrnes fired. We’ve got at least two more years to not worry about first base. And probably a lot more than that, before Rizzo’s #44 is on the right field foul-pole.