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Entries in Anthony Rizzo (3)


Can Anthony Rizzo Handle the Heat?

The Chicago Cubs committed at least $41 million and potentially up to $73 million in Anthony Rizzo this past May, ensuring the 24-year-old would slug his way to the upper echelon of first basemen at Wrigley Field. At least, that was the plan. While he hasn't totally collapsed like fellow franchise cornerstone Starlin Castro, Rizzo has stalled out instead out breaking out.

Rizzo established himself as an extension-worthy hitter in 2012 after Chicago acquired him from San Diego for Andrew Cashner in a rare young player challenge trade, posting an on-base-plus-slugging percentage that was 17 percent above average (117 OPS+) once adjusting for league and park factors. This year, Rizzo's 103 OPS+ tops that of just Lyle Overbay and Mitch Moreland (99 OPS+) among first basemen qualified for the batting title.

To stop getting heat from fans, the media and his manager, Rizzo has to start crushing heat at the plate. The Cubs' would-be bopper isn't making loud contact against fastballs this season, manager Dale Sveum told ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg:

"An every-day player gets 600 at-bats, averaging one major [fastball about groin-high] an at-bat; that's four a day," Sveum said. "What you do with those four balls that you can drive out of the ballpark dictates your whole day. The difference is the guys that are the elite center about three or four of those. What centering is, I don't care if they pop it up to the catcher, it's on the four inches of the barrel."

Sveum's right -- Rizzo isn't centering fastballs like he did last season. While Rizzo is hitting more fastballs in the air in 2013 (42 percent of balls put in play) than in 2012 (36 percent), many of those fly balls are of the can-of-corn variety. Last year, Rizzo drove fastballs an average of 277 feet when he hit one skyward, above the 270 foot MLB average and the same distance as Nelson Cruz and Carlos Gonzalez. In 2013, Rizzo's fly ball distance on fastballs has dropped to 254 feet -- about the same average distance as Michael Brantley and Brett Gardner.

It's hard to say why the 6-foot-3, 240 pound Rizzo is hitting fastballs more like a top-of-the-lineup water bug. He's swinging at fewer heaters thrown out of the strike zone (his chase rate has declined from about 29 percent in 2012 to 21 percent in 2013), and he's actually pulling fastballs more often (28 percent of balls put in play in 2012, 30 percent in 2013). Whatever the cause, Rizzo's 20-plus foot drop in fastball fly ball distance has contributed to a near 150-point fall in his fastball slugging percentage.

Rizzo slugged .532 versus fastballs in 2012, easily besting the MLB average (.433). In 2013, however, he's slugging just .383 when pitchers challenge him. The difference is especially glaring on low pitches: he slugged .571 against stuff thrown at the knees in 2012, but a mere .226 in 2013.

Rizzo's fastball slugging percentage by pitch location, 2012


Rizzo's fastball slugging percentage by pitch location, 2013


Rizzo's fastball woes apparently come as a surprise to the hitter himself. "Look at my numbers," Rizzo told ESPN Chicago's Greenberg. "My fastball numbers are the best there are." Hopefully, Rizzo can start taking out his frustration on those heaters. Right now, his numbers aren't the best there are -- they're merely better than Lyle Overbay's.


Newly-Extended Rizzo Crushing Upper-Half Pitches

Anthony Rizzo is just 23 years old, but he has already beaten cancer and been traded twice. Learning to handle middle and high pitches, then, has been a cakewalk by comparison. Rizzo's staggering improvement against stuff thrown above the belt is a major reason why the Cubs felt comfortable locking him up with a seven-year, $41 contract extension, with two club options that could make it a nine-year, $73 million pact.

During his rookie year with the Padres in 2011, Rizzo's long, uppercut swing produced little more than wind power against pitches thrown in the upper half of the strike zone. The 6-foot-3, 240 pound prospect hit like a banjo-strumming middle infielder, with an upper-half slugging percentage (.217) that was over 200 points below the major league average (.425).

Rizzo's slugging percentage vs. upper-half pitches, 2011

In 2012, Rizzo made significant progress in solving his above-the-belt troubles. He cut his miss rate against upper-half pitches from about 32% to 13%, and he raised his slugging percentage to right around the league average (.415).

Rizzo's slugging percentage vs. upper-half pitches, 2012

Rizzo is making plenty of contact again on upper-half pitches this season (14% miss rate), but it's much louder contact. He's slugging .661 versus above-the-belt pitches, and his six homers on upper-half pitches already triples his 2012 total (two).

Rizzo's slugging percentage vs. upper-half pitches, 2013

Just two years after ranking in the bottom 20 among MLB hitters in upper-half slugging percentage, Anthony Rizzo now keeps company with the likes of Bryce Harper, Carlos Santana and Chris Davis in the top 20:

Highest slugging percentage vs. upper-half pitches, 2013

Rizzo's progress against middle and high pitches suggests that his new deal could be a bargain for the Cubs, and so do his career comps. Rizzo has a 122 OPS+ in 532 plate appearances during his age 22-23 seasons, a mark similar to those posted by first basemen like Willie McCovey, Keith Hernandez and Kent Hrbek at the same age.

It remains to be seen if Rizzo can match Stretch's feats of strength or get on base like Hernandez (to say nothing of growing such an awesome 'stache), but he's off to a great start.


Rizzo Connecting in Chicago

Despite punishing Pacific Coast League pitching, Anthony Rizzo's first foray in the majors with the Padres last season could be summed up as one giant whiff. Rizzo's mighty -- and mighty long -- swing produced a .141/.281/.242 line in 153 plate appearances. His 30.1% strikeout rate was one of the 15 highest marks in the majors among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Once San Diego picked up Yonder Alonso as part of the Mat Latos deal with the Reds, they decided they'd rather have Andrew Cashner's dominant-yet-brittle arm than Rizzo's pull power (hardly a great fit at Petco Park) and contact woes.

Called back up to the big leagues in late June, Rizzo has rewarded former Red Sox and current Cubs execs Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, who originally drafted him in the 6th round of the 2007 draft and included him in the December 2010 Adrian Gonzalez trade. Rizzo is batting .294/.335/.471 in 200 PA, and he has chopped his K rate all the way down to 14%.

Check out Rizzo's contact rate by pitch location with the Padres in 2011 and with the Cubs in 2012. He has made marked progress in connecting in every region of the zone, save for low-and-inside:

Rizzo in 2011


Rizzo in 2012


The biggest difference is on pitches thrown in the upper third of the zone. Rizzo missed 48.8% of high pitches that he swung at last season, blowing away (in a bad way) the 19% MLB average. This year, Rizzo has whiffed just 11.9% on high pitches. That contact has been hard, too. Rizzo batted and slugged .053 on high pitches last season (.405 MLB average for slugging on high pitches). This year, he's slugging .500 against high stuff.

Changes in strikeout rate become significant pretty quickly. And, as Fangraphs' Eno Sarris noted earlier this summer, Rizzo's hands look less fidgety and his swing path appears cleaner in 2012. With Wrigley Field playing much friendlier for lefty pull hitters (96 Park Factor, per StatCorner) than Petco (66 Park Factor) and Rizzo drastically cutting the Ks, it looks like Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod will get to enjoy the fruits of their Sox scouting labor after all.