CHICAGO -- Just four games into the season, Rick Renteria has been playing the matchups when making out his lineup. To the dismay of some, youngsters such as Mike Olt and Junior Lake have found themselves sitting when a righty is on the mound. However, one young player sure to find his name in the lineup every day is Anthony Rizzo.
“The more he continues to face lefties, the more he’s adjusting his approach,” Renteria said. “Over the long haul, hopefully he starts to improve. But you can’t do it unless you’re out there.”
Rizzo’s struggles against southpaws last season are well documented, as he posted a rough .189/.282/.342 line in 216 plate appearances against lefties. The early returns this season aren’t any better, as he’s managed just one hit in nine at-bats facing lefties. To be fair, one of those pitchers was Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano, who has silenced lefties for much of his career, holding them to a measly .556 OPS against him.
Many look at Rizzo’s 2013 season as a failure, but ultimately he improved in many areas. His 11 percent walk rate and .186 ISO (isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average, a very good indication of a player’s power) were up from his strong 2012 stint with the Cubs. What slogged down his numbers was his .233 batting average, which was partly so low due to his .258 BABIP. A combination of taking the ball the other way to overcome the exaggerated shift defenses use against him along with a sharpened approach against lefties would help raise Rizzo’s batting average and help lead to much improved 2014.
Rizzo is coming off a strong spring (.321/.368/.528) in which he fared particularly well against lefties. However, facing the likes of Liriano and Saturday’s starter, Cliff Lee, isn’t doing him any favors. But Renteria is hoping the prep he got in the spring will help lead to Rizzo turning things around quickly.
“The purpose (of having him face lefties in spring training) was that we knew there are a lot of lefties in this league and we wanted them to be a little more acclimated to it,” Renteria said. “Just get them comfortable. This is only the fifth game of the season; we got a lot of baseball left. Anything can happen over the year.”
Renteria indicated that it wasn’t just Rizzo, but other lefties who may occasionally be in the lineup with a southpaw on the mound. Nate Schierholtz, who was part of platoon in right field for much of 2013, got the start against Liriano on Monday and managed to get a hit. And although young kids like Olt, who many believe has a bright future with the bat, will likely find their way into the lineup on a daily basis, expect Renteria to do a lot of mixing and matching with his lineup depending on who toes the rubber that particular day.
“We have the flexibility of the right-handed and left-handed matchups,” Renteria stated. “Someone had asked (Friday) about guys getting comfortable on a daily basis. I think we’re trying to put everybody in the best possible position for success based on the guys they face. You’ll see guys doubling up and playing against righties and lefties, just depends on where we’re at and how we see the fit.”
But one thing is clear: Rizzo is going to see his name penciled in the lineup regardless of who the Cubs are facing. The Cubs hope he’s a big part of a bright future for the franchise, and getting himself right against lefties will be big step in accomplishing those goals.