Anthony Rizzo Keeps Getting Better

Who is the best hitter in the National League? The easy and “right” answer, insomuch as one exists, is Bryce Harper, as we’re mere months removed from watching him put up the best season at the plate by a 22-year-old since Ted Williams. But with Harper currently producing at the plate at a rate more comparable to guys like Odubel Herrera and Stephen Piscotty, it’s natural to ponder the question: “If not Harper, then whom?”

There are a few viable candidates but two who stick out are the only two National League players other than Harper to post a wRC+ above 150 since 2014: Paul Goldschmidt, who has been consistently elite with the bat for four seasons now and, the subject at hand, 26-year-old superstar, Anthony Rizzo.

In the previous sentence, you could argue I threw around the word “superstar” a bit cavalierly. It’s a word from which I tend to shy away because it’s so incredibly subjective as to be functionally meaningless. I don’t know that there are more than two players in the game right now – Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw – who are labeled “superstars” with anything resembling universal agreement. Anthony Rizzo certainly wouldn’t receive universal billing as a “superstar.” I don’t know if he’s a superstar by your definition – shoot, I just paired him with that term and I’m not completely convinced he’s a superstar by my own subjective definition – but I do know this: Anthony Rizzo is an extraordinarily talented baseball player and, so far this year, he’s putting up what looks like the best season of his major-league career.

He has set or matched his career high in most key offensive rate stats from on-base percentage to wOBA to strikeout and walk rates. But not only is he putting together a strong season by his own standards, his stats stand out in comparison to his competition in the National League:

Anthony Rizzo 2016 Stats
2016 NL Rank
OBP .410 2
ISO .291 3
wRC+ 161 2
K% 13.2% 13
BB% 13.9% 7
rank out of 82 qualified NL batters
stats current through start of play on Tuesday

There are a variety of different ways to go about building a prototype for an ideal hitter, but a great starting point would be a guy doing exactly what Rizzo is doing right now: exhibiting plate discipline, getting on base, and hitting for power. That’s an impressive trifecta — and, at the core of that offensive profile, lies the key improvements Rizzo has made.

One of the biggest changes for Rizzo this season has been his approach at the plate. As evidenced by career lows in out-of-zone and in-zone swing rates (O-Swing% and Z-Swing%, respectively), he’s offering less often at pitches all around — a trend which is easily visible on his rolling-average graph:

Rizzo Rolling Swing%

But he’s not being passive merely for the sake of passivity. The key to Rizzo’s refined approach has been pairing this improved selection at the plate with contact rates which began trending upward last season. In the graph below, take particular notice of the blue line to see how he’s clearly setting a new and improved standard for his overall contact rate (Contact%).

Rizzo Rolling Contact%

Rizzo has never been a typical first baseman masher who strikes out a ton. Instead, his career K% is a perfectly reasonable 17.5%. This year, however, his dual improvement in both patience and contact has, naturally, led to an even more notable propensity for Rizzo to avoid strikeouts and work walks. As a result his K% is down to just 13.2% and his BB% is at a career-high 14.2%.

Rizzo Rolling K% and BB%

With two walks and a strikeout during last night’s absurd Cubs/Reds 15-inning marathon, Rizzo now boasts a 42:45 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This makes him one of just five qualified batters to have recorded more walks than strikeouts this season, along with David Ortiz (40:43), Bryce Harper (52:62), Jose Altuve (32:39), and Ben Zobrist (43:48).

The thing that makes Rizzo’s refined approach truly special, however, is that he’s combined it with an increase in power. Often players will see a decline in power when their contact rates tick up or vice versa, but not Rizzo. He’s making more contact and hitting for a career high in power.

Rizzo Season ISO

You can see the first significant jump in Rizzo’s power occurring during the 2014 season and holding through last season, but this year his power is on an entirely new level. Given the fact that he’s still just 26 years old, it makes sense that Rizzo could just now be beginning to tap into his full power potential.

The Cubs have garnered a lot of attention this season, and for good reason: they have the best record in the major leagues and remain “on pace” for a 106-win season despite an ugly 1-6 stretch last week. The headline-makers on the team, though, are sophomore phenom Kris Bryant and defending Cy Young-winner Jake Arrieta. Free-agent acquisitions Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward have also been the subject of a great deal of attention. But Anthony Rizzo? He’s old news. He’s been an excellent player on the Cubs for years now. And, yet, he just might be the team’s best hitter.

Note that I said “best hitter” and not “best overall player”. The defensive and base-running value Bryant provides make it hard for a slow first baseman like Rizzo to surpass Bryant’s overall production; however, at the plate, they provide comparable power and Rizzo’s plate discipline gives him an on-base percentage edge over Bryant.

Can Anthony Rizzo be a superstar if he’s not clearly the best player on his own team? Well, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to carry that distinction. Plus, he’s the three-hole hitter on the best team in baseball right now and, it would appear, is only getting better. If he’s able to maintain this combination of power and contact over a full season, it will put Rizzo in position to merit mandatory inclusion in discussions of the best hitters in the league.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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7 years ago

Can someone provide some rationale when setting the rolling graphs regarding what to set the game number at? On FG I’ve seen 5, 10, 15, and 45 game rolling graphs. Anybody have some insight as to a good reason why? Thanks!

7 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

In a number of articles, it’s noted that Player A has done something over the last 30 games, and for comparison’s sake, a 30 game rolling average has been picked…