Taking the Long View of Anthony Rizzo

Last Saturday, we posted “Ten Questions for 2014″ where we identified some of the key issues that face the Cubs as they head into the upcoming season.  Despite their 96 losses, the Cubs’ two greatest disappointments of 2013 involved the development of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro.  Both players entered last year with high expectations that neither could meet.  Today, we explore the following questions: ”Will Anthony Rizzo improve his batting average or hit for more power?  Which is more important?”

The Backdrop

Drafted by Theo Epstein’s Boston Red Sox in the sixth round of the 2007 amateur baseball draft, Anthony Rizzo (now 24 years old) was a highly regarded prospect involved in two significant trades in a fairly short period of time. After shooting up the Red Sox minor league system, Rizzo was the centerpiece of the team’s December 2010 trade for the San Diego Padres’ Adrian Gonzalez.  Upon joining the Padres, Rizzo began the 2011 season crushing the ball for the Padre’s AAA affiliate.  He earned a call-up to the parent club in June of that year, but struggled in 153 at bats in his first major league action.  The following off-season saw Rizzo dealt to the Cubs in exchange for pitcher Andrew Cashner.  As he had done the previous year, Rizzo began the 2012 season with a torrid offensive explosion for the AAA Iowa Cubs.  Rizzo hit 18 doubles and 23 home runs in only 257 at bats while posting a .696 slugging percentage (“SLG”).  On June 26, 2012, Rizzo went two for four with a double in his Cubs debut, in which the Cubs defeated the Mets by a score of five to three.  Rizzo finished the season with fifteen home runs and an impressive .805 on base plus slugging percentage (“OBP”) in 337 at bats.

After posting solid offensive numbers in his inaugural season with the Cubs, Rizzo experienced a series of ups and downs in 2013.  Many observers look at Rizzo’s pedestrian batting average and characterize last season as a disaster.  A closer look at 2013, however, proves more complex.  Rizzo showed signs of power early in the season as he hit nine home runs by May 6th.  Several long extra-base hit droughts, however, took their toll on Rizzo’s final power numbers.  By season’s end, Rizzo had tallied 23 home runs (tying him for 16th in the National League) and 40 doubles (5th in the league) for a .419 SLG (36th in the league).  Although in the post-steroid era these power numbers proved respectable, Rizzo’s impressive start raised fans’ hopes and ushered in the eventual let down that accompanied his subsequent power regression.

In conjunction with his early season power surge, Rizzo’s batting average crept up to .288 by mid-May.  At that point, unfortunately, Rizzo’s batting average began a year-long steady decline as he dealt with the grind of his first full major league season.  Rizzo ended the year with an unimpressive .233 batting average.  On the bright side, Rizzo drew a team-high 76 walks (6th in the league), which helped boost his on base percentage (“OBP”) to a more respectable .323 (46th in the league).  This OBP, combined with his slugging percentage, resulted in a .742 OPS (40th in the league).  Rizzo’s .742 OPS, while not terrible, proved disappointing in light of his previous season’s results.

Defense

Although Rizzo did not obtain the offensive production that many desired, his defense proved a pleasant surprise.  In analyzing Rizzo’s defense, The Bill James Handbook provides an excellent analysis of modern fielding metrics.  Past methods of rating defensive ability based on the number of errors a player committed or a player’s fielding percentage told us information about the balls that a player got to, but little or nothing about other important defensive factors.  Advanced fielding metrics are a relatively new way of looking at defensive value for teams and fans alike.  Sabermetric fielding analysis has gained popularity recently and was even added to the formula used to select Gold Glove Award winners this past season. Modern fielding statistics now contemplate factors such as the number of runs each player saves defensively over the course of a season.  Rizzo led all major league first basemen in 2013 with 16 runs saved (Prince Fielder came in last for first basemen with -13 runs saved followed closely by Adam Dunn’s -12 figure).  Plus/minus statistics evaluate a player’s range by identifying the number of plays made above or below the average defender at a position.  Using that statistic, Rizzo also led all major league first basemen with a plus/minus of +22 (Fielder again came in last among first basemen at -18).  Despite his defensive prowess, Rizzo did not win the 2013 Gold Glove at first base, but he did finish among the three finalists.  Rizzo’s defensive production clearly increases his overall player value.

Projecting 2014

What can we expect from Anthony Rizzo in 2014? Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for 2014 indicate a modest increase in Rizzo’s offensive performance (.255 batting average, .336 OBP, .464 SLG, and .800 OPS) closer to his 2012 results than last season. Other forecasters such as Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections also project (.258 batting average, .332 OBP, .472 SLG, and .809 OPS) improved production in 2014.  The consensus among prognosticators suggests that, while Rizzo may not develop into an All-Star first baseman, he appears to be a good bet to deliver solid middle-of-the-batting-order production in the near future.  Then again, at age 24, only one year removed from an impressive rookie season, Rizzo still has time to develop and emerge as a difference maker in the Cubs’ lineup.  For Cubs’ fans, an OPS of around .800 likely would quell concerns that Rizzo has regressed.  If Rizzo exceeds these computer projections, his more prodigious results would satiate the high hopes generated by his 2012 campaign.  Within the bounds of these scenarios, Rizzo should demonstrate that he is a good to very good baseball player in 2014.

Rizzo’s Age-23 Season Was Better Than You Think

Trying to project Rizzo’s prospects for 2014 proves particularly challenging because so few teams have ever started such a young first baseman.  The hype surrounding Rizzo at the onset of the 2013 season derived largely from his impressive play in 2012.  In only 368 plate appearances that season, Rizzo accumulated a 2.3 WAR.  Even though he played in merely 87 games, Rizzo’s WAR ranked 9th among all aged-22 first basemen who played major league baseball over the past 75 years.  Perhaps Rizzo’s historic age-relative performance contributed to the disappointment that followed in 2013.

Although not seemingly impressive, Rizzo played a full-season for the Cubs in 2013.  Consider that in the past 75 years only 40 players aged 23 have batted a minimum of 502 times while playing a majority of a season at first base.  Of those 40 players, Rizzo’s “down season” that resulted in 2.6 Wins Above Replacement (“WAR”) ranks 22nd. Rizzo placed directly behind current New York Yankee Mark Teixeira while he out-produced the age-23 seasons of Billy Butler, Paul Konerko, and Bill Buckner.  Viewed in this light, Rizzo’s 2013 season appears more notable than his slash line otherwise suggests.  Put another way, although only 40 players aged 23 have played a full season at first base, those players comprise a formidable group.  The list includes Don Mattingly, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Mark McGwire, Eddie Murray, Jeff Bagwell, Will Clark, Keith Hernandez, Prince Fielder, among others.  Being good enough to play first base at the major league level at age 23, in its own right, appears to say something about the quality of player involved.

To answer the initial question, it appears likely that Rizzo will improve his batting average and hit a few more home runs in 2014.  As to which of those two statistics is more important, the answer lies in the degree of improvement.  Surely, the Cubs believe that Rizzo can improve on his .233 batting average from last year.  His OBP, of course, stands out as a more significant statistic than his raw batting average.  If Rizzo hit in the .230’s again this season, but walked twenty more times, he still would produce a very respectable OBP.  Regarding his home run projections, history suggests that a young slugger like Rizzo should develop more power as he matures.  The age-23 first basemen identified above all demonstrated power increases as they approached their mid- to late-20s primes.  Consistent with historical trends, the aforementioned computer forecasts project an increase in Rizzo’s home run totals.  Again, an increase in Rizzo’s SLG contemplates improved power numbers, regardless of whether that translates into more home runs or other extra-base hits.  Rizzo’s improvement as a hitter, whether he increases his average or hits for more power, should be the yardstick by which we measure his 2014 season.  Nevertheless, as Rizzo demonstrated over 87 games in 2012, he is capable of getting on base more and hitting for more power.  Cub fans have reason to be optimistic that Rizzo will do both in 2014.

Photo: Anthony Rizzo / bengrey / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Alteration: cropped