I was going to write about the Cubs and White Sox starting their series tonight, but I figured you didn’t need to read another column about somebody who isn’t all that excited about it this year. You’ve read or heard that a hundred times already in the last few days.
Instead I’ve decided I’ll “preview” tonight’s series by taking a look at Anthony Rizzo’s hot start, and trying to figure out if it’s something he can maintain.
Coming into the season, Rizzo was one of the things Cubs fans planned on paying attention to. He regressed in 2013, finishing the year with a slash line of .233/.323/.419. While he still displayed the power the Cubs had hoped for — he had an extra-base hit percentage of 9.4%, a career high — the average and OBP were below expectations. The question was whether or not he could improve on those numbers, and just over a month into the season, Rizzo is doing that and then some.
He enters tonight’s game against the White Sox with a slash line of .294/.421/.510, and he has an OPS+ of 153 (which means he’s 53% better than the average MLB hitter, average being 100). He also has six home runs and 16 RBI, which puts him on a pace to finish the year with 33 homers and 89 RBI, both of which would be career highs. Now, you’d like to see the RBI number increase, but Rizzo can’t really control how many Cubs are on base when he hits, and he’s actually hitting .280 with runners in scoring position, and .324 with runners on base.
But being on pace to do something and maintaining that pace are two entirely different things, and I’m wondering if Rizzo can maintain it.
The thing I’ve noticed that really stands out is not that Rizzo just seems more patient this season, but that he’s not swinging and missing nearly as often. Rizzo is seeing 4.25 pitches per plate appearance this year, which is a full half pitch above the career average of 3.75 he had coming into the season. He’s also seen his walk rate spike to 16.7% after entering 2014 with a rate at 10.2%.
And then there’s the swinging strike rate. In his career Rizzo entered 2014 with a swinging strike rate of 17.1%. This year it’s down to 15.4%, while he’s looked at 33.6% of the strikes he’s taken, compared to only 26.4% in his first three seasons. Again, these are all indicators of just how patient Rizzo has been at the plate so far. Yes, he’s taking strikes, but more now than ever before, he’s just waiting for his pitch.
It may be a strike, but unless Rizzo thinks he can do something with it, he’s ignoring it. That wasn’t always the case in the past three years. This is a sign that, at 24 years old, with over 1,000 plate appearances under his belt, Rizzo is starting to figure things out. It’s a great sign.
At this point in the season his patience has resulted in more walks (23 including HBPs) than strikeouts (19). Now, I don’t expect that to continue through the course of the entire season, but it’s still a nice byproduct of this new approach.
The nicer byproduct of waiting for certain pitches is what Rizzo has been doing to them when he gets them. The reason he’s hitting near .300 is that his BABIP is currently at .308, as compared to the .258 he was at in 2013. The .308 is much more in line with league average, and it’s also similar to the .310 he put up in 2012 when he hit .285.
This is a direct result of Rizzo waiting for the pitch he wants and making solid contact with the ball. He’s not hitting ground balls as often as in recent years, and his line drive rate is up to 27% this season. It was at 23% coming into the year, so while it’s climbing, it’s not exactly a huge jump that isn’t sustainable.
In other words, there’s nothing that Rizzo has done this season that stands out as a huge red flag indicating he’s not going to have a successful campaign. I don’t think he’s going to finish the year with an average close to .300, nor do I think he’s going to have an OBP over .400 (though possibly close to it) for an entire season. But he’s going to have a very good 2014.
He’s going to approach 30 homers, and maybe even 100 RBI if he can get some help from his teammates. More importantly than anything, he’s going to show the Cubs that the first base position isn’t something they’re going to need to worry about down the line. Just continue worrying about finding the pieces to put around him in the lineup.
Rizzo will be mashing in the middle of it for some time.
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