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What To Make Of Anthony Rizzo

Coming into the 2013 season, first baseman Anthony Rizzo was considered one of the prime breakout candidates in all of baseball. He was only 23 years old on Opening Day, and he compiled a .349 wOBA with 15 home runs a year ago in 368 plate appearances. Furthermore, if one adds his Triple-A home run total from 2012, he actually launched 38 bombs last season, so it’s not difficult to understand what spawned the enthusiasm.

Rizzo wasn’t able to follow through on the bold predictions. He only hit .233/.323/.419 on the season, and despite the solid 23 home runs, he was barely a top-30 first baseman in ESPN leagues. His .325 wOBA ranked 19th among qualified first basemen, behind uninspiring guys like Nick Swisher, James Loney and Justin Smoak.

Thus, two questions quickly push their way to the forefront: (1) what happened in 2013, and (2) what can fantasy owners expect for 2014?

As one would expect, the answers are intimately related. They both center around his inability to handle left-handed pitching. In 2013, Rizzo hit .189/.282/.342 against southpaws and a more robust .252/.342/.454 against righties, and 16 of his 23 home runs came against right-handed pitchers. It’s important to note Rizzo suffered from a .207 BABIP against lefties; however, I’d argue the low BABIP was partially due to increased weak contact, which can be seen by his 15.3% infield fly ball rate against lefties (more than double his 7.3% against righties).

Furthermore, his struggles against left-handed pitching appears to be becoming a trend. Even in his impressive 2012 campaign, Rizzo only posted a .208/.243/.356 slash line against lefties. He continued to crush righties (.386 wOBA) and 11 of his 15 home runs came against righties, which is once again similar to his 2013 story. The difference in performance level between the two years was simply the fact that he demolished righties more in 2012 than he did in 2013 — and perhaps much of that is BABIP-related (.280 BABIP in 2013 and .348 BABIP in 2012).

Some analysts in this space have focused on his increased walk rate, decreased swinging-strike rate and his improved plate discipline. They have argued these are positive signs and could be harbingers for improvement heading into 2014, and they’re obviously correct that those improved metrics should be celebrated. However, until Rizzo proves that he can handle left-handed pitching at the big-league level — something he hasn’t shown in 1000+ plate appearances — his ultimate upside will be extremely limited.

(Side note: The good news is Rizzo has shown an ability to handle southpaws in the minors and he’s only 24 years old, so perhaps this is a skill that will quickly develop. True talent often emerges after an adjustment period. With a sample size over 1000 plate appearances, though, it’s definitely a concern and something that should reasonably be expected to continue in 2014.)

This leads us into the discussion of the 2014 season and what we can expect from the slugging first baseman. Because no matter the struggles against lefties, Rizzo is draftable due to his power — both his power potential and his track record of power — but the question becomes about value.

In answering this question, I want to work under the assumption that Rizzo will continue to have issues against left-handed pitching. I think that’s only fair. Nothing at the big-league level has convinced me this will not continue to be a problem in 2014. Thus, how valuable can Rizzo be if he’s just mashing against righties?

In this case, the most-useful example is Brandon Moss.

Moss served strictly as a platoon player for the Oakland Athletics this year, playing against right-handed pitching and sitting against southpaws. But he absolutely destroyed right-handers all year. He posted a .387 wOBA against righties with 22 doubles, two triples and 26 home runs. Among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, Moss’s wOBA ranked 14th in baseball against righties and his .284 ISO against righties ranked second (Chris Davis had an otherworldly .411 ISO against righties, by the way).

Moss was truly elite against right-handed pitchers this season, yet he only ranked 13th among first basemen in ESPN leagues. Part of this is due to playing time — he only registered 505 plate appearances — but if we assume that Rizzo is Moss-like against righties and continues to struggle against lefties, it seems his upside isn’t much higher than being a third-tier first baseman. He’ll benefit from playing everyday and racking up a few more counting statistics because of that, but his batting average should also dip accordingly. Give a little, take a little.

Of course, if Anthony Rizzo suddenly hits left-handed pitching like he did in Triple-A in 2011 and 2o12, all bets are off. He would then threaten to become a top-tier first baseman. However, we haven’t seen that in 1000+ plate appearances at the big-league level, and I’m not comfortable with relying on improvement just because he’s young. It seems the best-case scenario for fantasy owners is a Brandon Moss type year, which is certainly valuable, just not overly exciting.

Fortunately, due to his down season, he could represent a bargain on draft day in the lower rounds, but he could receive some helium as a popular sleeper, buy-low guy. In that case, be sure to value accordingly and don’t overpay because his upside should remain limited.