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Anthony Rizzo: Jumping the Gun

It’s completely understandable as to why the Padres were so eager to bring up their prized 21 year old, lefty, slugging first baseman.  At this time last season they were sitting atop the NL West and making an unexpected and almost improbable run that had most experts scratching their heads.  This season, they reside in the basement with little chance to repeat 2010’s success while the rest of baseball is staring at Adrian Gonzalez who leads all of MLB with a .347 average and 62 RBI.  So what better way for the franchise to save face than to promote Anthony Rizzo, the biggest chip coming back in the Gonzalez deal and a guy who’s been tearing the cover off the ball down in Triple-A.  It all sounds great and it’s probably a positive move for the franchise, but over-eager fantasy owners are probably jumping the gun with their waiver claims.

Obviously sample size plays a big part in evaluating Rizzo’s level of production since the call-up.  The kid has only appeared in 9 games and has just 36 plate appearances to his credit.  Out of the gate, he looked spectacular, going 3-for-7 with a home run and 4 walks.  All three of his hits went for extra bases and, while people weren’t forgetting about the loss of A-Gone, they were certainly feeling better about their future.  Patience at the plate, a solid batting eye, and tremendous power potential — this kid had star-quality written all over him.

But then reality set in as Rizzo managed just one hit, a measly single, over his next 20 at bats.  He did manage another 4 walks, but was also punched out 8 times.  His BB% of 22.2% looks great for a rookie, even for such a small sample of plate appearances, but the 40.7 K% is starting to overshadow the positives and looking like maybe he isn’t quite ready for the big leagues just yet.

When Jason Catania unveiled Rizzo in a recent Mining the Minors piece, he pointed out that Rizzo was “crushing the PCL from day one” and that, “even in a hitter-friendly league (.805 league-wide OPS), Rizzo’s bat stands out.”  Absolutely correct.  A .715 slugging percentage and 1.159 OPS would certainly grab anyone’s attention.  However, in looking down the rest of the names that adorn the upper tier of PCL hitters, you’ll see that there are another 15 players with an OPS over 1.000, another 19 batting over .330, 9 more slugging over .600, and another 26 with an OBP greater than .400.  So while yes, Rizzo gets some props for sitting second on that list across the board, it really does need to be taken with a grain of salt.  He’s been crushing the PCL, but so have a lot of other guys – Wily Mo Pena, Bryan LaHair, Eric Young, even Cody Ransom has phenomenal PCL stats.  Doesn’t always mean it translates to the bigs though, does it?

Then, as Catania also notes, there’s the park factors for Petco to factor in.  By almost 40%, that ballpark suppresses home runs from left-handed batters.  While that statement is a truth we all know, it is not something on which we can place current blame for Rizzo’s tortoise-like start.  The last five games have all been on the road, and while Minnesota’s Target Field is playing like a pitcher’s park, Rizzo had three games at hitter-friendly Coors Field in which he did virtually nothing.

Now sure, we can throw blame on his atrociously low .200 BABIP and say he’s been unlucky to start, but again, I point to the 40.7 K% and the fact that he’s also sporting a 56.3 GB%.  No power-hitter is going to catch fire banging balls in the dirt at that rate.  Not to mention, his contact rate right now is pretty weak (66.1%).  When pitchers do get him to fish outside the zone, he’s just missing altogether.

But believe me, I’m not here to run down Rizzo, by any means.  I happen to like the kid plenty and own him, myself, in a pair of keeper leagues.  He should eventually develop into an outstanding hitter in the majors, but fantasy owners hoping to strike gold right out of the gate are fooling themselves if they think that they’ve latched onto a 20 HR guy this season.  It’s going to take him some time to develop and I would not recommend just leaving him in your active lineup and waiting for the power to come.  Keeper leagues, he is a bench stash.  Re-draft leagues, I don’t see why he has to take up a spot on your roster in lieu of a more productive veteran.  Yes, it’s nice that the Padres don’t have very strong alternatives and should keep Rizzo in the regular lineup, even against the tough lefties, but until he gets more seasoned….a lot more seasoned…he is going to be a drain on your fantasy team’s production.