Anthony Rizzo’s Dramatic Turnaround

It’s been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his overly aggressive slide into home plate against the Pirates on Monday — a slide ruled legal by the umpires and replay officials at the time but later deemed interference by Major League Baseball, and dissected here by Craig Edwards — but Anthony Rizzo has turned the corner. Following a frigid March and April, he’s put together one of the majors’ hottest performances in May. In fact, he’s made one of the most drastic month-to-month turnarounds of any hitter thus far this year. His performance is worth a closer look.

Before we go there, though… to these eyes, Rizzo was in the wrong on the aforementioned slide into catcher Elias Diaz, just as he was last year, when he slid into Austin Hedges. I don’t have anything substantial to add to Edwards’ detailed breakdown of both plays, except to say that the three-time All-Star is going to wear the black hat for a spell as one of baseball’s villains. Perhaps he’s unpopular at the moment, but one play shouldn’t prevent us from noticing the other 99.9% of his season.

Though he homered off the Marlins’ Jose Urena in his second plate appearance on Opening Day, Rizzo went just 3-for-28 with a walk in the season’s first six games. After a bout of lower back tightness forced him to the bench for three straight games, the 28-year-old first baseman was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He took an 0-fer in his return on April 17 against the Cardinals, and while he collected three hits in his second game back, the slump persisted. He finished April hitting a ghastly .149/.259/.189 for an NL-low 32 wRC+ in 85 plate appearances. The homer off Urena was his only extra-base hit for the March/April period (which I’ll hereafter refer to just as “April”), and he walked just four times (4.7%) while striking out 15 times (17.5%) — that from a player who walked more than he struck out last year (13.2% to 13.0%).

Inserted into the leadoff spot by manager Joe Maddon in an attempt to jump-start a flagging offense that had scored just 13 runs in its previous six games, Rizzo flipped the calendar to May in dramatic fashion, homering on the first pitch he saw from the Rockies’ Jon Gray on May 1. He homered again versus the Rockies the next day, and added another, against the Cardinals, on May 5. After an 0-for-5 on May 6, he entered Wednesday having reached base safely in 18 of his last 19 games, with four more homers and an active 11-game hitting streak.

Through Tuesday, Rizzo had hit .308/.414/.604 in 111 plate appearances in May, walking in 15.3% of his plate appearances while striking out just 8.2% of the time. His 170 wRC+ for that span was good for 12th in the majors, and his jump from April to May was MLB’s second-largest among qualifiers:

May’s Most Improved Hitters
Player Team Mar/Apr wRC+ May wRC+ Diff
Brandon Crawford Giants 41 195 154
Anthony Rizzo Cubs 32 170 138
Carlos Santana Phillies 63 168 105
Scooter Gennett Reds 107 211 104
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 66 168 102
Edwin Encarnacion Indians 57 157 100
Eddie Rosario Twins 74 171 97
Francisco Lindor Indians 100 189 89
Logan Morrison Twins 40 118 78
Brett Gardner Yankees 73 151 78
All stats through Tuesday, May 29.

Obviously, Rizzo’s early woes left him extra room for improvement. Nonetheless, this May has been one of the best calendar months of his career, trailing only his September 2014 (237), June 2016 (212), May 2015 (181 wRC+), and August 2017 (175).

To be fair, his slow start may have been tied to his back trouble. It also owed something to bad luck, at least upon making contact:

Rizzo’s Monthly Improvement, Batted-Ball Data
Month Avg EV 100 +GB% wOBA xwOBA Dif
Mar/Apr 89.5 31.3% .219 .344 -.125
May 91.5 19.2% .418 .401 .017
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
100 +GB%: percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph that were ground balls.

While he wasn’t exactly scalding the ball early on, Rizzo was still hitting it pretty hard in general. The difference in his xwOBA across the two splits was just 57 points, compared to a gap of 199 points in terms of actual wOBA. He had five ground balls with exit velocities of at least 100 mph in each period, but that was out of 16 such batted balls in April and 26 such batted balls in May; of the earlier group, none were hits, while two from the later group produced singles. He hasn’t had a 100-plus grounder since May 12, and has gone 10-for-15 with six extra-base hits when he’s launched one at least 100 mph.

Rizzo’s overall swinging-strike rates have been virtually unchanged from month to month (6.7% in April, 6.6% in May). The big difference in his plate-discipline stats isn’t how often he’s swinging at pitches outside the zone (27.6%, compared to 26.6% in April) but how often he’s swinging at ones in the zone (64.5% in April, 72.2% in May) — suggesting that he was passing up hittable pitches before. That’s true to some extent, based on the heat maps:

Rizzo still hasn’t been swinging often at pitches on the low inside corner of the strike zone, though he isn’t often pitched there in the first place. The bottom line is that where he was struggling upon putting both fastballs and breaking pitches into play before, he’s annihilating both types of pitches now:

Rizzo’s Monthly Improvement, Outcomes by Pitch Type
Month # FB FB Avg FB SLG # Break Break Avg Break SLG
Mar/Apr 36 .167 .250 21 .143 .143
May 49 .347 .673 25 .320 .720
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
FB: results when putting four- and two-seam fastballs into play.
Break: results when putting curveballs and sliders into play.

That’s a gain of over 400 points of SLG on both classes of pitches. Whew.

Rizzo’s overall numbers (.232/.345/.411, 106 wRC+ including Wednesday’s 0-for-4, which isn’t reflected in any of the numbers above) are still well off his solid performance from 2017 (.273/.392/.507, 133 wRC+), and his wRC+ still represents the third-lowest mark of any Cubs regular, ahead of only Addison Russell (95 wRC+) and Jason Heyward (87 wRC+). Nonetheless, the team has shaken off an 0-5 start to the month to go is 13-8 since May 6 for the third-best record in the NL over that span. Considering the struggles of starters Tyler Chatwood, Jose Quintana, and the twice-injured Yu Darvish — all of whom have FIPs in the 4.69-4.81 range while together averaging just 5.1 innings per turn — Rizzo’s turnaround has been more than welcome. Without the 5.95 runs per game the Cubs (29-23, 4.5 games back in the NL Central) have cranked out over that 21-game period, they’d be eating even more of the 36-21 Brewers’ dust than they already are.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

Been a weird year for NL First Basemen. Rizzo, Goldschmidt, and Votto are all having uncharacteristic seasons thus far