2014 Fantasy Baseball: Walk This Way — The Anthony Rizzo Story
When you’re a fan of Chicago’s north-side team, the narrative is always ‘wait ‘til next year.’ There’s been little to cheer about for Cubs fans over the past decade. The only good news is they aren’t breaking fans hearts in September or October like they did for that small stretch in the early 2000’s. They always break camp with little to no expectations, except for the continued development of their young talent. Their minor league talent is as deep as any team in baseball right now, and you know the names. Bryant, Baez, Almora, Edwards…it’s quite a list. The Cubs need a few of these kids to really live up to the hype if they plan on competing in the near future, but even more importantly, they need their major league level talent to continue to grow. Enter Anthony Rizzo.
Coming off of a promising 2012 season, one could only describe Rizzo’s 2013 as disappointing. The young supposed slugger-to-be slashed just .233/.323/.419 in his first full season and left Cubs fans and fantasy players alike, scratching their heads. He suffered from a BABIP deficiency (.258) that clearly impacted his .233 batting average, but his line-drive rate was low for a player making above average contact, and that will keep your BABIP down. Despite the disappointing slash line, Rizzo managed to hit 23 home runs last season, with a pedestrian HR/FB% of just 12.6%, 18th for all first baseman last season. After displaying prodigious power throughout the minors, it was safe to expect a rebound with his 2014 HR/FB rate.
What no one saw coming was the improved patience at the plate that we’ve so far from Anthony Rizzo this season. After walking in just 7.3% of his plate appearances in 2012, that rate jumped up to 11% in 2013 which is above league average. So far this season, Rizzo’s walk rate is elite. He’s ranked sixth in all of baseball at 15.5%, and his raw walk total of 49 is second to only Andrew McCutchen in the National League. Let’s look at swing rate heat-maps from BrooksBaseball.net to show you the drastic improvements. As you’ll see, bright red means the hitter is aggressive and swinging at roughly 75% of the pitches thrown in that zone. It progresses to a bright royal blue, denoting that the player rarely offers at pitches in that zone; think less than 25% of the time.
Without even giving this a second look, you can see there are clearly more blue areas in Rizzo’s 2014 map, especially up in the zone. In particular, he’s laying off hard stuff up in the zone, while continuing to be aggressive when getting a breaking ball, in or out of the strike zone. This is keeping his strikeout rate high, but I’m not worried about that if his walk rate continues to be in the same ballpark, figuratively speaking. He’s seeing more pitches, and the 24-year old first baseman is taking advantage. His 2014 slash line of .278/.400/.506 is what you get from a top-5 fantasy first baseman, and the 15 home runs to date are a 30+ pace and as we’ve seen, are supported by his elite power and new patient approach at the plate. Suddenly the Cubs have something to be excited about, and he’s already on the team.