How Anthony Rizzo is Beating the Shift

Even though he’s just 29 years old, the last few seasons of Anthony Rizzo’s career have looked a lot like a player in decline. At its most basic, Rizzo’s offensive production looked like this:

He hit for a 155 wRC+ back in 2014, dropped 10 points, held steady for a season, dropped 10 points, and then dropped 10 points again. The simplest of graphs doesn’t always tell the story, though, and so far this season, Rizzo is hitting as well as he’s ever has. In a less simplistic view, here’s Rizzo’s 50-game rolling wRC+ since 2014. Every point represented below shows roughly one-third of a season to help eliminate a slump over a few weeks or some fluky results:

Even here, we seem to see a long slow creep downward, with the highs not quite as high and the lows a bit lower. Where the difference is compared to the yearly numbers is in the 2018 movement. There is a huge valley to start the season with a massive peak higher than anything Rizzo has done since 2015. The two evened out and resulted in a somewhat disappointing year before we get to a small valley to start this season with another good peak, both of which look similar to Rizzo’s profile prior to 2018. When we break out some of Rizzo’s numbers, consistency appears more prevalent than a decline.

Anthony Rizzo Through the Years
2014 11.9% 18.8% .240 .311 .386 .527 155 NA
2015 11.1% 15.0% .234 .289 .387 .512 145 .380
2016 10.9% 16.0% .252 .309 .385 .544 145 .365
2017 13.2% 13.0% .234 .273 .376 .470 134 .394
4/18 4.7% 17.6% .041 .172 .149 .259 32 .324
5-9/18 11.4% 11.2% .209 .303 .393 .512 139 .373
2019 11.4% 14.0% .300 .278 .404 .589 159 .419

What we have prior to this year is one really bad month in the middle of mostly consistent performance. A bad BABIP season in 2017 caused a slight drop in production, but it might not even have been deserved based on his Statcast numbers. Most of last season, Rizzo hit just like he did normally. It’s important that we don’t completely throw out the bad month. Sometimes one slump is a sign that a fall is more likely, while a run of poor play due to injury could mean further injuries and poor performances down the road. What we can say for this season is that Rizzo is hitting as well as he ever has, and it might have to do with how he’s dealing with the shift.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to beating the shift. The first is to hit the ball the other way and take advantage of the lack of fielders on one side of the infield. This approach has its merits because if a player can do it successfully, a base hit is essentially a guarantee. Since the principal purpose of a hitter’s job is to not make an out, going the opposite way could be a very good thing.

Unfortunately, hitting the ball the other way against the caliber of pitching we are currently witnessing at the major league level is incredibly difficult. The other downside is the lack of opportunities it creates for extra base hits. Players hit the ball harder to their pull side and hitting the ball harder leads to balls in the gap and homers. Removing that aspect of a player’s game can be overall detrimental to his batting line. That leads to the other philosophy for hitting against the shift, which is to crush the ball as hard as possible in order to beat it. This philosophy can lead to more homers and doubles, but can also lead to many more groundball outs as players miss their target and hit right into the shift. Most players seem to have chosen the latter philosophy, though Anthony Rizzo seems to have asked, “Why not both?”

Due to his lack of strikeouts, Rizzo is generally considered a very good two-strike hitter. It’s possible his reputation has outstripped his production. From 2014-2018, Rizzo’s 141 wRC+ ranks 12th among 164 batters with at least 2,000 plate appearances. During that same time, his 74 wRC+ in two-strike counts is well above-average, but only ranks 28th in the game. Over the last two seasons, Rizzo’s 65 wRC+ in 669 plate appearances with two strikes puts him closer to average than elite. Heading into this season, here’s how Rizzo’s numbers compared in a few batted ball areas with two strikes versus plate appearances that ended before that mark.

Anthony Rizzo With Two Strikes: 2014-2018
Before Two Strikes Two-Strike Counts Difference
GB% 33.6% 42.8% 9.2
Oppo% 19.0% 23.8% 4.8
wRC+ 210 74 -136

We see that Rizzo has increased his groundball rate quite a bit on two-strike counts during his career while not changing how often he went the opposite way too much. He hits better before two strikes than with them just like every hitter. Rizzo chokes up with two strikes to make more contact, but the results was just more groundballs and not necessarily taking pitches where they were thrown. The difference is perhaps partly due to choking up on the bat, but also due to where pitches are thrown, as we can see in the heatmaps showing Rizzo’s pitches generally and those with two strikes on the right.

Rizzo is already being pitched low and away generally, and that tendency becomes more extreme with two strikes as fewer pitchers see the heart of the zone. In protect mode, Rizzo has a fairly typical swing and makes contact due to choking up, but without his full swing and by swinging at pitches low and away, we end up with a lot of groundballs and a lot of pulled groundballs for outs.

Now let’s look at the same two-strike table from above using this year’s numbers.

Anthony Rizzo With Two Strikes: 2019
Before Two Strikes Two-Strike Counts Difference
GB% 45.3% 35.7% -9.8
Oppo% 16.1% 34.3% 18.2
wRC+ 241 78 -162

Before getting to two strikes, Rizzo rarely goes the opposite way and hits a ton of groundballs. He’s only slightly more pull heavy than he used to be, but he’s hitting the ball on the ground a lot more. He’s willing to hit all those groundballs because they come with a ton of line drives and fly balls, which includes a lot of home runs. This is what Rizzo’s spray chart looks like before two strikes, from Baseball Savant.

Early in the count, Rizzo appears to be selling out a little bit and so far, half his pulled fly balls have left the ballpark. That might not last all summer, but trying to hit over the shift, even with a ton of failures mixed in, is working out so far. He might get a little exposed to a good changeup, but how many right-handers possess good changeups? When the count switches to two strikes, Rizzo changes, and it isn’t just about choking up to make contact.

Unlike from 2014 to 2018, the groundball rate goes way down, an indication he’s not pulling over on all those outside pitches that he used to, while the percentage of opposite field batted balls significantly increases. Rizzo’s results on two strikes still aren’t great, but with an 78 wRC+ in the early going, he’s doing a bit better than he has over the past couple seasons. Here’s his spray chart so far this season with two strikes.

He’s still pulling some inside pitches, but when the pitch is away, he’s going with it and getting decent results. Before this season, Rizzo tried to beat the shift the same way throughout a plate appearance, and he managed pretty well before he got to two strikes. Once the count got to two strikes, though, Rizzo choked up, saw different pitches, and ended up hitting into the shift more often. This season, he’s hitting away from the shift with two strikes and getting better results. Going with that approach before two strikes would make Rizzo a terrible hitter, but when he is already at a severe disadvantage, this approach mitigates the damage.

Going forward, we probably can’t expect Rizzo to continue hitting at a 162 wRC+ clip. Pitchers will likely adjust to his tendencies a bit; maybe he’ll see more changeups and fewer of his fly balls will leave the yard. Rizzo has now given himself room to drop his numbers, and this approach could reverse the decline we’ve been seeing the last few seasons and provide the Cubs with the elite bat they’ve grown accustomed to over the last half-decade.

We hoped you liked reading How Anthony Rizzo is Beating the Shift by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Great article! I have both Rizzo and JRam on a strato team of mine. But I happen to be an Indians fan (in case it wasn’t already obvious) and this article discussing what Rizzo is doing is more or less along the lines of what I have felt JRam should be doing. Looking at MLB Savant, they are similar hitters in terms of directionality. At this point, Jose’s biggest problem seems to be getting under too many pitches, which could be the result of trying to pull pitches he should be leaving be. But I digress. Would you see an approach like this working for a guy like Jose who has exceptional bat-to-ball skills, and who has also been thrashed by the shift?