Analysis by Michael Clifford
Every year, there are a handful of prospects that get a lot of press. For 2014, the names Gregory Polanco, Oscar Taveras, and Andrew Heaney were some of the more coveted names. As of today, Polanco has an 88 OPS+ (178 plate appearances), Taveras sports a 43 OPS+ (93 PAs), and Heaney was demoted after four starts. It’s really, really hard to have a high level of success as a young player in the Majors. Heck, Mike Trout had a .672 OPS in 40 games back in 2011.
That 2011 season also saw Anthony Rizzo break on the scene and struggle. Rizzo was called up by San Diego in early June, struggled through two months, was demoted, then recalled for September. Through both stints, Rizzo put up a .141/.281/.242 slash line. While that looks awful – and it is – it gave fantasy baseball owners a glimpse into what Rizzo can do: take walks.
Rizzo’s OBP of .281 was well below average, but the 13.7-percent walk rate was incredibly impressive. It’s not a full sample, but he was over 11-percent at High-A, was 9.6-percent at Double-A, and 10.4-percent at Triple-A. Rizzo being able to take walks was part of his profile, and it showed through.
Since that 2011 season, it’s been nothing but uphill for Rizzo. His walk rate has improved every year since, starting with 7.3-percent in 2012 and up to 12.7-percent this year. In fact, that’s not the only thing that he’s improved upon every season:
|Ground Ball Rate||45.5-percent||42.5-percent||37.8-percent|
|Fly Ball Rate||30.2-percent||37.9-percent||39.6-percent|
The maturation of a young baseball player is infrequently linear. There are typically ups and downs and the key is to look at indicators of success. With Rizzo, though, he’s making it exceedingly easy to see the improvements. He’s walking more, grounding the ball less, and hitting the ball with more authority. There’s a lot more to this, though, than his home page at FanGraphs.
One thing that can is always a concern when looking at a left-handed hitter is how they fare against left-handed pitching. The elite lefty bats – Adrian Gonzalez, Robinson Cano, David Ortiz – all struggle more against lefties than righties. Respectively, the career splits for lefties against righties (by OPS) see Gonzalez at minus-138 points, Cano at minus-110 points, and Ortiz at minus-153 points. Despite being demonstrably worse against lefties than righties, Cano is likely a Hall of Famer, Ortiz is borderline, and Gonzalez is one of the most consistent hitters of his generation. Left-handed hitters don’t have to be great against left-handed pitchers, they just can’t be terrible against them (ahem, Adam Lind and Pedro Alvarez).
Rizzo had these problems in the minor leagues for most of his young career. While there were times when he wasn’t too bad against left-handed pitching, there were times where he was much worse against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching:
|K-Rate vs RHP||22-percent||20.4-percent||23.5-percent||16.2-percent|
|BB-Rate vs RHP||10.7-percent||10.6-percent||12.4-percent||8.7-percent|
|OPS vs RHP||.865||.879||.964||.995|
|K-Rate vs LHP||13-percent||25.3-percent||25-percent||20.6-percent|
|BB-Rate vs LHP||7.6-percent||9.1-percent||7.6-percent||5.2-percent|
|OPS vs LHP||.726||.670||.756||.791|
|ISO vs RHP||.180||.247||.297||.262|
|ISO vs LHP||.119||.163||.155||.238|
By OPS, his best season in the Minors for splits was his 2009 year. Other than that, his other three seasons saw a differential of over 200 points. One thing that is noticeable is this: Excluding 2009, his walk rate declined every season but his OPS improved every season. Rizzo wasn’t walking as much, but he was hitting the ball with a lot more authority. That’s not surprising in the least, but it’s better than not seeing improvement of any kind.
Fast-forward to his 2012 MLB campaign. Using the same parameters, this is what Rizzo has done with his splits since becoming a regular for the Cubs:
|K-Rate vs RHP||15.7-percent||17.5-percent||18.8-percent|
|BB-Rate vs RHP||8.4-percent||11.4-percent||12.7-percent|
|OPS vs RHP||.892||.796||.884|
|K-Rate vs LHP||19.6-percent||20.4-percent||17.9-percent|
|BB-Rate vs LHP||4.7-percent||10.2-percent||12.8-percent|
|OPS vs LHP||.599||.725||1.006|
|ISO vs RHP||.191||.202||.236|
|ISO vs LHP||.149||.153||.278|
That’s a scary sight for National League pitching.
I don’t think that Rizzo will settle with an OPS over 1.000 against left-handed pitching, or even over .900, that would be a bit absurd. Barry Bonds’ career OPS against left-handed pitching is .986. I think it’s safe to say that Rizzo isn’t the second coming of Barry Bonds.
With that obvious statement out of the way, Rizzo has improved his approach against left-handed pitching a lot. If Rizzo’s OPS can maintain anywhere between .800 and .850 for his career, though, we’re talking potential Hall Of Fame numbers. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Here are the career OPS numbers for HOFers, current or future, against lefty pitching:
There are nuances to this list: Griffey and Cano are/were excellent fielders; Thome cranked over 600 home runs; Gwynn was a career .338 hitter. What it does mean is that a left-handed hitter doesn’t have to be elite against left-handed pitching. He just has to be good, and over the last season and a half, Rizzo has been good.
Rizzo obviously still has a long, long way to go in his career. The first baseman is just in his second full year with the Cubs and there is some regression to come with regard to left-handed pitching. But with the plethora of excellent prospects the Cubs boast, this team is certainly on the rise. With Rizzo hitting in the three-hole, it’s not a stretch that he turns into a perennial .280/30/100 hitter. While having that at first base kind of diminishes his value in fantasy baseball, he’s not very far away from proving himself to be one of the elite hitters in the game.
*As always, a thank you to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference for their resources.