Anthony Rizzo’s Swing

Few players have had the swings of fortune that Anthony Rizzo has experienced.

After being drafted in the sixth round by the Red Sox in 2007, he had an unspectacular but promising debut for an eighteen year-old in rookie ball (.286/.375/.429). Then he found out he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and spent most of 2008 eating, sleeping, and getting chemotherapy. It took him until 2010 to really bounce back, but that year he hit .263/.334/.481 in Double-A for the Red Sox and suddenly appeared on prospect lists. Then he was traded to the Padres and hit .141 with the big league club in 153 plate appearances. Then he hit 26 home runs in Triple-A. Then he was traded to the Cubs. Then he hit 23 home runs in 284 Triple-A plate appearances.

Now the 22-year-old first baseman has been called up a second time, perhaps to stay. That’s a lot of back-and-forth swings for Rizzo. It should be no surprise, then, that his fortunes hang on his ability to sustain the changes he’s made to his swing.

If you only look at Rizzo’s best years in the minor leagues, you’d think that he didn’t need to make any changes. He had isolated slugging numbers over .200 in good parks and bad parks. When he tore up Double-A, he did it in Portland of the Eastern League — not the Pacific Coast League, where he put in a .331/.404/.652 line a year later. He struck out around 22% of the time, and had double-digit walk rates. He even stole some bags and looked good around the bag.

But there was that year he struck out 23.7% of the time in High-A for the Red Sox. And even in a short 153-PA sample, it was worrisome that he came up and whiffed on 14.3% of the pitches he saw (major league average is around 8.5% most years). A 30.1% strikeout rate, like the one he had with the Padres, takes a lot of the shine off a prospect.

And there was some reason to worry. He moved his hands a lot. He seemed to take a long path to the ball. He might have had a hole on the inside, near his hands. People began wondering if he had a slider-speed bat. Take a look at his swing with the Padres for yourself:

Now Rizzo has swung back to fortune. He turned 2011′s .331/.404/.652 into .342/.405/.696 this season (both PCL) and almost equaled his home run total in over 100 fewer PAs his second time in that hitter-friendly league. But more importantly, he cut his strikeout rate to 18.3% — the lowest he’s shown since he hit the high minors. Subjective reports lined up with the results. He’s cut down the wiggle. He’s moved his hands. He’s not taking as long of a path to the ball. He’s ‘fixed’ his swing. Right?

The angle isn’t great, but there isn’t a ton of publicly available Anthony Rizzo video from this year. You could try this video of his final batting practice in Des Moines, if you like. From this armchair, the reports seem warranted. He does look like he’s setting up differently. He does look like he spends less time getting into his swing. He does seem more direct to the ball.

153 plate appearances is not a huge sample, but the Padres must have seen something they were worried about. That’s a team that could use some power, and they traded away their powerful first base prospect, along with A-ball pitcher Zach Cates, for fireballer (but reliever) Andrew Cashner and A-ball outfielder Kyung-Min Na. Perhaps it was the fact that Rizzo was a pull-power lefty, and their park is not well-suited to that sort of player. Maybe it was the fact that Rizzo had some flaws in his swing.

Rizzo now has a new team and a new lease on life. His home park now augments lefty home runs by 4% compared to PetCo’s league-worst 17% suppression of the same. He’s altered facets of his swing. There isn’t much more he can learn in the minor leagues, and he seems primed for takeoff. Maybe we should have known that the pendulum would once again swing in Rizzo’s favor.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


20 Responses to “Anthony Rizzo’s Swing”

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  1. Semi Pro says:

    Baseball Prospectus had an article last year about his struggles, and focused on his inability to hit any fastball over 89 mph. Maybe his new approach has quickened his swing path to the ball and he can catch up to those pitches.

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    • David Wiers says:

      I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Rizzo and mention his “slider bat speed.”

      I wouldn’t jump on the Rizzo train just yet.

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  2. Adam says:

    His swing path is certainly shorter. He lost his hitch moving his hands way back with the load. His current load is quicker and smother with a much shorter stride as well.

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  3. Adam says:

    He may want to start his hands higher however. I suspect he will see a lot of high and inside fastballs now.

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  4. Paul says:

    I appreciate the use of video rather than just relying on numbers, but neither of these vids shows us what his problem was (although the latter does to some extent if you know what you’re looking for).

    When I saw this last year http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=15790661&c_id=mlb, it was hyped as a pretty swing that was going to do a ton of damage. Which surprised me, because I saw a guy who is perhaps the most advanced and accomplished prospect ever who completely “gets around” the ball. After that swing no MLB pitcher threw him anything near the inside corner for another month, and there he went back to the PCL. He must have been doing it since high school, and it is actually pretty impressive that he hit at all. So as Eno mentions, high strikeout rates popping up here and there are not surprising. I can’t believe the Red Sox didn’t fix it immediately, but maybe he’s stubborn and needed to fail. He has a good story, and of course the Cubs need him, so I hope the adjustment works.

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    • Fletch says:

      I’m very interested in this kind of analysis but I’m not well versed in the terminology. Can you explain what “getting around” the ball means?

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      • Paul says:

        It’s in the third definition down here: http://www.baseballfactory.com/tool_grades_class_ratings/llbsc_scouting_glossary.asp

        In that home run video, look at how early his front hip is open, and that bat just drags. Look up any vid on Jim Thome, who has a similar setup. You can tell Thome’s weight is much more balanced and he’s driving through the ball instead of flipping his hips open. It’s not that different than a golfer with a terrible slice who is not just keeping a stable base and letting the hands do the work. Hitting around the ball seems to happen at the MLB level more with lefthanded hitters it seems like. Sometimes established guys get in bad habits and you’d say their hips drift a little, but at the MLB level you almost never see it to that extent, because they just won’t hit at all. Mike Moustakas had the same problem last season when he first came up, and it was compounded by his incredible over-aggressiveness. If Rizzo has made the same adjustment as Moose, look out because Moustakas is seriously for real now.

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  5. the sandman says:

    tHIS KID beat cancer. That certainly says a lot about his character. Maybe Im wrong, but this young man seems to make the necessary adjustments for a solid MLB career. The Cubs can certainly use someone of his talents.

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  6. Marver says:

    “the Padres must have seen something they were worried about”

    How come we’re assuming that all teams have only smart people making these decisions, and that these smart people never make stupid decisions? Perhaps Josh Byrnes (and his staff) are stupid at baseball valuations; do we really have enough evidence to refute that?

    In other words, perhaps the Padres didn’t see something they were worried about. Perhaps they just made a stupid decision for unrelated reasons. Like, as Josh Byrnes actually said, “avoiding a QB controversy” with Alonso.

    With the amount of stink Alonso has generated this season — 2 homeruns, 8 errors at 1B — I’m more inclined to say this was a stupid decision made for a stupid reason (QB controversy) than it was something measurable the Padres saw in Rizzo.

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    • Paul says:

      I don’t think it’s possible for them not to have seen it. Yes, casual fans and talk radio idiots will completely miss it, but there it no way people who actually watch baseball could. I am not a scout, nor remotely in the ballpark of someone like Mike Newman, and even I knew to completely dismiss his early season demolition of the PCL last year based on one swing.

      However, if they knew it why did they bring him up instead of fixing it at AAA? As I suggested in my comment, I think it must be that he saw no reason to, especially since he was having success. A lot of orgs are perfectly happy to let a really talented player fail before trying to fix him. I personally do not like this approach at all. Instead of having a young player struggle at the MLB level for sometimes years, you can go get some 26 year old who finally made adjustments after failing for years and washing out of another org. The Royals do this a lot. It worked amazingly well with Mike Moustakas, not so great with Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, and now Eric Hosmer.

      His swing plane is much better designed for success in that park, so if he’s stopped flipping his hips going with Alonso over him was a big mistake, unless Cashner pays off.

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      • JB Knox says:

        The Padres def saw the length in that swing and decided it didn’t fit very well into spacious Petco Park, whereas Alonso isn’t considered a power hitter as opposed to a line drive guy with 15 HR power. The Padres made a solid deal getting Alonso and Volquez for Latos as well as getting Cashner to pitch in that stadium. They could’ve fixed his swing and waited it out but there is some risk in that and when a GM/Prez such as Theo has already shown his love for the guy and calls you, well you may as well pull the trigger and get a guy that can throw 99-100 to pitch in that park.

        BTW those videos show Rizzo swinging at two low-mid pitches which have always been his strength. I live in Portland, ME and have a scouting certificate. I’ve watched a ton of his ABs. If you look at his hands he actually has them lower to start off his swing and then brings them up as part of his timing mechanicism. His swing last year and years before showed his hands higher before his swing starts but he dropped them and flattened out his bat when the pitcher was in his windup. I’d like to see his hands higher as well at first glance but as long as he gets them up there on the load he should be ok. I’d also like to see him get a bit closer to the plate daring pitchers to jam him. Not many pitchers have the pin point command to get in there without fear of either a HBP or leaving one out over the middle. It will help him take advantage of mistakes on fastballs and still reach low and away off-speed stuff. He does look so much quieter as a hitter now which I’m psyched about having met him many times

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      • JB Knox says:

        Basically if you look at it from the perspective of a boxer throwing a punch which is very, very similar to hitting mechanics, his old swing was like a very long slow left hook and his new swing has more of a direct body blow. It allows him to use his lower half & core more efficiently when he swings A lot of coaches/scouts teach young hitters boxing drills to create a more direct path to the ball. Not sure if he incorporated any of that but whomever helped him fix his swing with a very small change in the placement of his hands has a keen eye.

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  7. jcxy says:

    that’s really depressing that there are so few people in the stands in the first video.

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    • maestro876 says:

      Why?

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      • jcxy says:

        just assumed that minors games were well attended. i’ve always found something terribly satisfying about seeing players before they’re big.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        It was probably a middle of the week game in a small town and for a Padres farm club. I live in Springfield, MO where the Springfield Cards (AA) team plays. You see a huge difference in weekday vs weekend games as with any team. Also, we are close to STL, so the fanbase is strong. I don’t know where that game was in proximity to the Padres but given the Padres already small fanbase, I wouldn’t guess they’d have a lot even if it were close. Lastly, if it’s in a town of 100,000 people, how many can you realistically expect to come especially when the conditions aren’t right for more in attendance.

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  8. dave g. says:

    He is going to love Wrigley…but those hands on the second video just seem too low and relaxed. He will not catch up to anything up in the zone. And if he raises them from that spot, then it’s a reverse hitch.

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  9. MM says:

    hit the ball hard the other way twice tonight. hard to do that if you’re hitting around the ball.

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