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.