So far, Anthony Rizzo's very good season has also been very weird


Before Sunday night’s series finale against the Cardinals, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon was asked if, given how well he’s played so far, Javy Baez is the best player on the Cubs right now. Maddon talked around the question, only going so far to say that it’s a fair assessment and that Baez is one of the best players across baseball in general. 

While a quick peruse through 2019’s hitting leaderboards can confirm that, it also serves as a reminder that another Cubs player has been among the game’s elite hitters -- especially over the last two weeks: Anthony Rizzo. 

Rizzo’s had an interesting season so far. He’s only hitting .243 right now, which is on pace for the lowest since 2013. With that said, his batting average is a great example of why many around the game don’t treat the stat with quite the same reverence anymore. His on-base percentage hasn’t dropped, thanks to a BB% that’s two percent higher than it was last year; his slugging percentage is over .500 again. All in all, he’s been 38% better than the league-average hitter so far. After a small drop in production over the last two seasons, 2019 Rizzo has looked alot like 2015-2016 Rizzo - the one who finished top-5 in MVP voting both years. 

Not many hitters face tougher defensive positioning than Rizzo. Per MLB’s Statcast numbers, only 26 batters have seen shifts more than Rizzo this season. Of his 135 plate appearances, 93 of them have come against the shift, which amounts to 68%. The MLB average? 40%. 

It’s also the most he’s ever been shifted against since Statcast started tracking such things, and would be a significant jump from any season prior: 

2018: 62.5%
2017: 60.1%
2016: 59.6% 

Any beat writer on the planet will jump at the opportunity to tell you that baseball is a game of adjustments, and sure enough, Rizzo’s adjusted. A consistent pull hitter throughout his 9-year career, Rizzo’s now hitting the ball the other way more than he ever has (2019 is highlighted): 

(Via Statcast)

"It's by design,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He doesn't want to pull the ball that much. I don't want any of our guys to pull the ball that much, quite frankly. For left-handers, right field foul line should be a straight line from second base to the right-center field fence and right-handed hitter from left-center on over. I think you do your best work when you're there.” 

A look at Rizzo’s spray chart illuminates Maddon’s point perfectly. Rizzo’s still doing the the bulk of his damage in the left-center gap, except for one noticeable change: 

(Via Statcast)

For someone who’s always been pitched down and away, with the infield shifted to the right, the approach makes all the sense in the world; his only triple and three of his six doubles have gone to the opposite field. Most of his power remains pull side, but when you’re putting balls onto Racine, it doesn’t really matter where the defense was set up. 

It hasn’t come totally free. Some of his contact trends -- a 5 percentage point drop in Solid Contact %, for example -- outline the price you pay for going the other way. He’s also on pace to see the highest percentage of off-speed pitches in his career (17.5%), which likely plays a role. Still, bringing up a small dip in contact to a guy who’s slugging over .800 the last two weeks feels like nothing more than a nitpick. 

It's just the best method to employ, I believe,” Maddon added. “Stay on the fastball first there and if you have to pull, pull the breaking ball because you're a little bit quicker on it. That's it. That, to me, could be a cookie-cutter approach for anybody."

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