The Chicago Cubs’ announced earlier this week that they had signed Anthony Rizzo to a 7 year extension worth 41 million dollars. It will keep him in a Cubs uniform until at least 2019 and possibly up to 2021 and can be worth up to 73 million dollars. The extension buys out this year, when he was making near league minimum, next year, when he would make near minimum, his 3 arbitration years, and then at least two of his free agent years, keeping him around until at least his age 29 season. Rizzo originally broke into the big leagues with the Padres (after being a part of the Adrian Gonzalez deal with the Red Sox), but really struggled. He then was traded to the Cubs where he had thrived. I thought it would be a good idea in this post to look at his Pitch F/X data and see what we can tell about Rizzo as a hitter (he is a first baseman, so he has to succeed with the bat obviously), and see whether or not he can keep it up.
For our purposes, we will look at only his data as a Cub, and only versus starting pitchers. By my count, this gives us 1322 pitches to look at, a decent sample.
First, let’s see where pitchers are throwing the ball to the left-handed hitter., along with some results for comparison:
Teams try to keep the ball on the away part of the plate on average, nothing that is unusual. His tendencies are also pretty normal as well, as his home runs come on the higher pitches, and his whiffs come on the lower pitches. The only thing that is really surprising is that his outs are coming on higher balls than the average location (though this could just be a BABIP thing).
Here are the types of pitchers he is facing by release point (a quick key on the bubbles: O= Ball in Play Outs, H=Ball In Play No Out, SS= Swinging Strike, CS=Called Strike, B=Ball, F=Foul, RS= Ball In Play Run(s)):
I count 69 pitches thrown over 95 MPH by starting pitchers against Rizzo as a Cub. He has put 17 of these in play, and swung and missed at exactly zero of them. The bat speed is there, and by all evidence excellent. You can’t get in on him with hard fastballs, so most of his swinging strikes are coming on breaking balls, a lot of them looking like curveballs. The two hardest pitches on the speed and spin chart were pitches that were hit for run scoring plays.
One thing about Rizzo that makes him a little hard to evaluate on the whole is that we have not seen the lefty face a lot of left-handed pitching. He has just 196 plate appearances against lefties in his career. Here is where he has been pitched to by lefties so far:
As I think you can see, lefties pitch Rizzo away much more than in. They don’t want to bust him inside (and when they do, he seems to be okay), but instead are trying to throw the ball low and away. Rizzo is a little swing happy the numbers suggest, swinging at more pitches in and out of the strike zone than league average. This is how you can get him out, not trying to test his bat speed or trying to bust him inside, but by staying away from him and hope he chases. His walk rate isn’t especially high, especially if you consider the power in his time with the Cubs so far. Since we are looking at what amounts to less than a full season so far, there is always a fear that he could regress (which is why looking at Pitch F/X data can give us a more in depth look than just looking at the numbers) or revert back to Padre form, but power without a ton of walks isn’t unprecedented. In fact, there were 29 hitters that had a SLG over .500 last year, and 16 of them had walk rates under 9 %, so Rizzo can succeed power wise with his plate discipline, it is just something that will continue to be tested. He likes pitches that are higher to hit for homers, but left-handed pitchers aren’t giving him a lot to hit up so far. By laying off the low off-speed pitches, he can make the pitchers come up more, and he can hit the fastballs.
These extensions are somewhat of a gamble, especially when you have less than a year of data of Rizzo playing good, and he doesn’t give you position certainty. He has to hit, or you paid him too much money for his arbitration and pre-arbitration years (and you wouldn’t want him for the extra years anyway). However, if you are going to take a gamble on a 1st baseman, Rizzo seems like a guy who is worth it. He has shown that he has raw power, all throughout the minors and with the Cubs so far, and it has worked in games for him too, as bat speed is not the problem (unlike some other powering hitting 1st baseman prospects that didn’t or haven’t panned out). The extension seems like a reasonable gamble if you believe that he can handle lefties and the outside breaking ball well enough to get him fastballs.