Anthony Rizzo Opened Up the Lower Half by Jeff Sullivan September 17, 2015 It would be easy to argue Anthony Rizzo hasn’t gotten better. It wouldn’t even be an insult — last year’s version of Rizzo was super good. Not many people could improve on that. The wRC+? Down, from 155 to 147. The defense remains above-average. Rizzo seems like the same player. And he is, as a matter of fact, still quite similar. But it’s also pretty easy to argue Rizzo’s taken a bit of a step forward. He’s given back nothing in terms of power. He’s given back nothing in terms of walks. He’s trimmed his strikeouts by 20%. The only reason his numbers aren’t up is BABIP, and, you know how that goes. Additionally, there’s this — there are 226 players who have batted at least 250 times in each of the last two years. Here are this year’s biggest increases in average fastball velocity seen: Anthony Rizzo, +1.5 miles per hour Justin Smoak, +1.2 Chris Coghlan, +1.1 Yoenis Cespedes, +1.1 Cody Asche, +1.0 There’s not a perfect relationship between fastball velocity and pitcher quality, but overall, velocity correlates well with effectiveness. So what this suggests is that, this year, compared to last year, Rizzo has faced stronger opponents. Stronger opponents, with similar overall numbers and a reduced strikeout rate? That sure seems like a better player. The intro brings us to Thursday. General thesis: hey, Anthony Rizzo got better. How? It’s complicated. It’s almost always complicated. But sometimes we can observe manifestations of improvement. Rizzo already played on Thursday, and he hit a home run, and that home run was this home run: Pretty good. (It’s a home run.) Great contact, nothing cheap. Also, a meaningful home run! The Cubs and Pirates are jockeying for position. But, forgetting about the playoff race for a moment, I just want to focus on this. It might not be perfectly clear from the video, but that pitch was well down: Down and out of the strike zone. Take that pitch, and it’s a ball, and if you’re a hitter, a ball is good. Balls set up hitter-friendly counts, when you’re more likely to hit a dinger. Rizzo just kind of hit fast-forward on the at-bat. Here’s a screenshot around the point of contact: It’s blurry, because bats move fast, but this confirms the pitch location. The pitch was well below the front knee. Rizzo attacked it, with a steep shoulder angle. And though this homer was pulled, it’s worth noting that Rizzo’s right shoulder didn’t fly open. He stayed pretty closed on this pitch, and pulled it because he was ahead of it. Rizzo, by now, is pretty used to being a good hitter. He ought to be less used to being a good low-ball hitter. This is his third straight full season. Here are his homer totals on pitches no more than two feet off of the ground: 2013: 2 low home runs 2014: 3 2015: 9 Nine so far this year; five the previous two years, combined. Didn’t hit any in the partial 2012 season. Didn’t hit any in the even more partial 2011 season. Pulling from Baseball Savant, here are all of Rizzo’s homers from 2011 – 2014, combined: You see a lot of action in the middle, and just around it. Bit of a clump middle-away. Here now are all of Rizzo’s homers from 2015, excepting Thursday’s: The action has moved down some. Not dramatically, but there’s more focus on the lower half. More success in the lower half. We already looked at homers, but now let’s look at slugging percentages on pitches no more than two feet off the ground: 2013: .220 SLG 2014: .288 2015: .453 In case that isn’t enough, we can put this in some context — here are Rizzo’s year-to-year ranks. 2013: 202nd 2014: 151st 2015: 15th He’s shot from close to the bottom to close to the top, and while this is just a reflection of results, and not necessarily ability, results do tend to follow ability, so we can be pretty confident there’s something here. You see a slight sign of a little improvement a year ago, and then this year is a leap forward. Anthony Rizzo is now demonstrating that he can hit, and punish, the pitch down in or beyond the zone. In keeping with the pattern, over the three full seasons, Rizzo has increased his willingness to swing at the low pitch. He’s also improved his rate of contact against the low pitch, from 2013’s 56%, to last year’s 63%, to this year’s 70%. Rizzo is aware this is becoming a hotter zone, and his tendencies reflect that. It’s probably also good to note Rizzo isn’t now struggling more against pitches upstairs. His numbers against pitches up are down a little bit, but they’re still strong, with Rizzo showing more balance. Last season, when Rizzo really emerged, he was a high-ball hitter, exploitable down. This season, he can hit pitches anywhere, and while maybe that’s come partially at the expense of success up, this is the elimination of a hole. A cold zone has disappeared, making Rizzo ever more dangerous to face. Rizzo is no stranger to making adjustments. He’s had to make several, in order to carry his success over from Triple-A to the majors. He’s worked hard to become more of a contact hitter, and this year in particular has seen Rizzo improve his approach and overall coverage. With improved plate coverage, Rizzo has knocked away a fifth of his strikeouts. And he’s also opened up for himself a hitting area he previously had problems reaching. At this point, Rizzo can hit high, and Rizzo can hit low. He’s still going to make outs, more than half of the time, but those outs are getting harder and harder to earn.