In a season with too many questions and not enough answers, Cubs fans may have found at least one: Anthony Rizzo is the cornerstone of this team.
Coming off the dreaded “sophomore slump” that every professional athlete hopes to avoid after a successful rookie campaign, Rizzo (just 24) seems to have found his groove in the batter’s box this season. He busted his ass in the off-season to make sure he was ready to perform like the guy Cubs GM Jed Hoyer traded for twice since leaving Boston; and he’s also giving Cubs fans the slightest bit of reason to keep watching in 2014.
2013 was a very disappointing season for Anthony, who batted just .233 despite a solid 23 home runs. That average is very deceiving, however, as his batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, was only .250. For comparison, the league average is .300.
Some people might say that’s Rizzo’s fault, to which I would say you don’t know baseball very well. All hitters are going to have those seeing-eye singles or duck snorts that fall in during the season. This just suggests that Rizzo was either very unlucky last season, or that the defense was in the right place at the right time when he came to bat.
Go ahead and call me a homer for trying to justify Rizzo’s average last year. Either way, his biggest problem was against left-handed pitching. Anthony batted an abysmal .189 against southpaws in 2013; a number even Mario Mendoza could laugh at. At the end of last season, fans were dumbfounded at what had happened to such a promising future for the first baseman.
Flash forward to June 2014. Rizzo’s offseason consisted of plenty of left-handers in the cage to assure he would change that rather big hole in opponents’ scouting reports. With newly acquired hitting coach Bill Mueller not trying to adjust his swing as much as his predecessor James Rowson did, Anthony says he feels much more relaxed at the plate, and it’s showed.
Just more than a third of the season is in the books, and ‘Rizz’ is crushing left-handers for a .333 average and four of his 12 home runs. Teams started shifting on him last year to better their chances of getting the heavy pull hitter out, and he’s even adjusted to that this season by putting down bunts from the cleanup spot.
How that average against lefties ends up will be a big indicator of how confident Cub fans can be about him at the plate moving forward. Below are charts of Rizzo against left-handers in 2013 and 2014, respectively. As you can probably guess, red is good.
All ranting about his average aside, there’s more to being a franchise cornerstone. Rizzo does everything right for a team of misfits who are basically filling holes until the cavalry of prospects are recalled later this year and into next year. He picks people up when needed, helps younger players adjusting to the major league life and does it all with a positive attitude on a team promised to rebuild since his arrival two summers ago.
Finally, and probably most importantly, he provides defense to a position that others on the team (cough, Starlin Castro) are pretty lucky to have. Anthony finished tied for second among all qualifiers at first base with an astounding .997 fielding percentage last season, and is well on his way to a similar finish again in 2014. His quick thinking around the base and ability to judge a poorly thrown ball are almost irreplaceable. At this point the question is ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ regarding his first Gold Glove.
The Cubs were hoping and thinking the same thing when negotiating with Rizzo last season. In May of 2013 the team locked him up to a seven-year, $41 million dollar contract, betting on his future now rather than later.
While that’s a lot of money to bet on a younger player, it’s a very little amount of money to bet on a franchise cornerstone. And right now, that looks like the best bet on the North Side.
(Feature photo from Fantasy Squads, hitting zone pictures from espn.com)