Entering the 2013 season, the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo was perhaps the most hyped first baseman in all of (fantasy) baseball. Don’t believe me? Click here, here, or here. I, too, was guilty of piling on the hype after he posted a .285/.342/.463 slash line with 15 home runs in 368 plate appearances in 2012, but things took a turn for the worse in 2013. A turn I, and many others, didn’t see coming.
While the counting stats weren’t terrible (23 home runs, 71 runs, 80 RBIs), Rizzo staggered to a .233/.323/.419 slash and posted a pedestrian 102 wRC+, the fourth worst mark among qualified first basemen — worse than Justin Smoak (109 wRC+), Adam Dunn (105) and Adam LaRoche (103).
My personal ranking of Rizzo for 2014 and beyond has taken a tumble as a result, with a top-10 grade at the position no longer being the case. I would have easily argued for Rizzo ahead of Freddie Freeman at this time last year; now, it’s easily the other way around. And it’s not close. (Sorry for doubting you, Freddie.)
Rizzo does offer the one thing fantasy owners can’t seem to get enough of from their first baseman: power. It’s why some of us might feel more comfortable rostering Rizzo over a more complete player like Eric Hosmer, who isn’t as likely to record a 30-home run season any time soon. (I, for the record, do not think this way.) There is, however, little reason to doubt that a 24-year-old Rizzo won’t continue to build on a convincing track record of strong power numbers from the minors on up.
After a 26-home run campaign in San Diego’s Triple-A affiliate in 2011, Rizzo launched a combined 38 home runs (23 in Triple-A; 15 in Chicago) in his first year with the Cubs. In 2013, Rizzo’s .186 ISO was tied for 12th highest with the Joey Votto, and better than Freeman (.181 ISO) and Prince Fielder (.178). Additionally, his 40 doubles were 10th most in the league, just two fewer than Orioles’ slugger Chris Davis. You’d like to see some of those doubles turn into home runs, but he’s still young enough to develop more power.
The elephant in the room is a career line of .194/.270/.347 against left-handed pitching, and it was even worse in 2013 as he batted .189 with seven home runs against southpaws. Part of the problem was a very low .207 BABIP against lefties. But he was also striking out more (17.5 percent vs. RHP; 20.4 vs. LHP) and making weaker contact, including a lower line drive rate (20.7 percent vs. RHP; 17.1 vs. LHP) and a higher infield fly ball percentage (7.3 percent vs. RHP; 15.3 vs. LHP).
The Cubs were confident that Rizzo solved his woes against left-handed pitching in the minors, but, so far, he has a career wRC+ of 67 against southpaws, compared to a wRC+ of 114 against right-handers. All in all, he’s been incredibly average in his brief major league career, and there are questions as to whether or not he’ll actually reach the elite ceiling many predicted when the Cubs dealt power-pitching prospect Andrew Cashner for their “first baseman of the future.”
There is some hope for dynasty league owners of Rizzo, however. As I touched on briefly, Rizzo’s .233 average is partly the result of a low BABIP – a .258 BABIP to be exact. Only seven players had a lower mark in 2013. But, according to his .297 xBABIP, he was extremely unlucky. Rizzo also demonstrated better plate discipline, upping his walk rate from 7.3 percent to 11. While Rizzo’s contact rates were pretty much the same, he was far more selective at the plate, swinging at 30 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone (down from 38.5).
Rizzo won’t be getting much help from his Chicago teammates in the new year, as the Cubs starting lineup currently consists of a top four of Starlin Castro, Luis Valbuena, Rizzo and Nate Schierholtz, according to MLB Depth Charts. That hasn’t stopped Steamer and ZiPS from predicting big things, however, with the former projection system calling for 31 home runs, 88 runs, 94 RBIs and a .268 batting average.
Given his supporting cast, the short return on Rizzo might not be as good as those lofty projections suggest, but there’s no way I’m selling the Cubs first baseman after one not-s0-great year. We still saw Rizzo’s biggest asset — his power — play at the big league level, and now we’ll wait and see if his batting average rebounds. He’s still hovering around the top-10 dynasty league first basemen, so he’s someone I would continue to target in trades.
Statistics from FanGraphs.