The dreaded sophomore slump.* It can turn even the most prominent rookies into pumpkins. Despite a promising rookie season, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo failed to live up to lofty expectations. A year later, Rizzo won’t be depended on for elite production. And given the abundance of options at first base, Rizzo is likely to be one of the last starters at the position to be snatched up. Meaning, he’s being viewed as a fall-back option in most leagues. Given some of the indications, he could be much more than that in 2014.
A cursory glance at his numbers show a low .258 BABIP, which is reason enough to buy into a rebound. During his abbreviated season, Rizzo put up a .310 BABIP. He doesn’t have enough experience for us to know his true level, but it’s fair to say he’ll post better than the ninth worst BABIP in the league again. Rizzo also showed more patience at the plate, leading to a higher walk rate during his second season. This is somewhat offset by a jump in Rizzo’s strikeout rate.
Rizzo’s strikeout numbers are actually fairly significant. Though they finished below the league-average, his early struggles with strikeouts played a big role in his decline. Through the season’s first month, Rizzo’s strikeout rate jumped to 24.3%. He basically turned into an all-or-nothing hacker. If he made contact, he was going to hit the ball a mile. If he missed, he was going to whiff. That all changed once May rolled around.
Rizzo was able to get his strikeouts somewhat under control, posting just one more month where his rate jumped above 20%. The only problem was that it seemed to negatively impact his home run numbers. After hitting eight dingers in April, Rizzo hit just two home runs in both May and June. That jumped to three in July, six in August and then two again in September.
Most of his success with home runs has to do with his fly ball rate. It’s no surprise that his fly ball numbers were highest in April and August, the two months he went homer-crazy. There are both positives and negatives to this type of approach. While hitting more fly balls will lead Rizzo to hit for more home runs, it’s also going to push his BABIP down, as evidenced by last season.
The real question is whether Rizzo can find a happy medium. Rizzo hit for a much higher line drive rate during his rookie season, which not only boosted his average, but also helped his power numbers. But even if he’s unable to get back to that level, Rizzo can succeed as an all-or-nothing hitter. If he continues to rely on a fly ball heavy approach, his average will fall, but his power numbers could be elite. The main issue is whether he’s capable of showing either of these skills over a full season.
Given that the Cubs coaching staff was fired for asking players to make too many adjustments at the plate, it looks like there’s a chance Rizzo will keep a consistent approach throughout the season. If the new staff can get on the same page with Rizzo, and are content with leaving him alone, he could provide a solid upside. A BABIP improvement should be coming, and that will give Rizzo a much needed boost in his average. With a little more consistency at the plate, he could finally see all his skills fall into place.
*It was technically Rizzo’s third season, but he still had rookie eligibility in 2012.
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