CHICAGO -- Anthony Rizzo’s young career has been filled with plenty of ups and downs.
When he was first called up to the big leagues while with the San Diego Padres, Rizzo struggled in a 49-game stint and put up a measly .523 OPS.
After getting traded to the Cubs the following offseason, Rizzo continued to tear up the minor leagues before arriving at Wrigley and delivering a strong .283/.342/.463 line with 15 home runs in a half season’s worth of at-bats. Rizzo followed it up with a rough 2013, in which many of his peripheral numbers improved (more on that later), but he was dragged down by a poor .233 batting average.
Clearly, that didn’t unnerve Rizzo. If anything, it made him work harder to prove he was still a young piece the Cubs could build around and prove he was same guy the front office felt was worth investing seven years and $41 million in when they extended him in May 2013.
So far in 2014, that hard work appears to be paying off, as Rizzo improved his All-Star-worthy line to .288/.404/.532 with a 3-for-4 night Tuesday and knocked out his 17th home run of the season in the Cubs' 7-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Between his OBP and very strong 14.9 percent walk rate, people have started comparing Rizzo to perennial All-Star and stathead darling Joey Votto.
“It’s an honor,” Rizzo said when asked how he felt about the comparisons. “He’s an MVP, he’s a Gold Glover, he’s hit a lot of home runs and done a lot of good things in this game for a lot of years. So it’s definitely an honor.”
Although Votto admitted he hasn’t been able to watch Rizzo much, the Reds star said he believes the young Cub might be making the proper adjustments to lead to a long and productive career.
“I think he can do a lot of different, good things,” Votto said. “I think that he’s starting to spread the ball out over the ballpark, which is something that he was working on and is finally starting to see it executed in a game, which could benefit him in the long run.”
Votto and Rizzo trained together in the offseason in Florida with mutual friend Casey Kelly, a pitcher with the Padres. Both played down their relationship, with Votto deadpanning, “I have no friends in baseball,” as a teammate laughed in the background.
“It’s funny, one person says that me and Votto are best friends, and now everyone asks,” Rizzo said. “I was in Sarasota, [he and Kelly] had the same trainer, and we were just working out together. I got to know him a little bit better off the field, and it’s just like any other friendship.”
One of Votto’s most impressive traits is his ability to lay off pitches outside the zone. According to Fangraphs, Votto has only swung at 21.1 percent of the pitches he’s seen outside of the strike zone, good for eighth in all of baseball. Rizzo isn’t quite at that level, but his 26.6 percent is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s just another area in which he has steadily improved throughout his time with the Cubs.
Rizzo’s walk rate has gone from 7.3 percent to 11.0 to 14.9. His ISO (isolated power, which is slugging minus batting average, a great indication of a player’s true power) has jumped from .178 to .186 to .243. Up and down the line, it appears Rizzo has steadily improved as his career has gone along, with 2013 just a blip on the radar dragged down largely by his .258 BABIP.
But Votto accurately cautioned that looking at BABIP and assuming a player is having bad luck can lead one astray.
“The idea that your numbers will come around because your luck will turn around ... Well, are you being honest with yourself?” he said. “Whether you really have been unlucky, or is this a byproduct of too many ground balls, too many easy fly balls? I’m not really sure, but I do notice that some form of regression can be a bit of a lie if it’s not actually happening during a game. That’s where the scouts’ eyes come in. There needs to be a complement, a good relationship between both sides. When a scout says this guy’s just not driving the ball, how are you going to expect the luck to kick in if you’re swinging like [crap]?”
It’s a fair point by Votto, but it appears that, along with some smart adjustments and the natural development of a young player, Rizzo’s gotten the luck back on his side in 2014.
One thing that might've helped Rizzo is self-scouting -- watching video of himself and identifying issues that might be causing struggles at the plate. Votto is a fan of self-scouting but also knows it can lead to a player overthinking things and finding problems that really aren’t there.
“I think there’s a fine line,” he said. “You don’t want to get too critical of yourself because I think you can get in trouble with that. If a lot of players look at themselves on video, they’ll always find something to adjust or that doesn’t look quite right. So I think you have to go off of feel as well as what you think of yourself on video. So it’s kind of a balancing act.”
While the two seem to agree on a lot of things, Rizzo doesn’t take much satisfaction in his improved ability to take a free pass.
“I don’t really take pride in walking -- I don’t really want to walk,” he said. “I’d rather drive the ball in the gap. But if I get a free pass, I get a free pass. It just depends on the situation. It really comes down to me swinging at the right pitches, and if I don’t get them and I have to walk, then I’ll walk.”
Rizzo is on to something when he suggests his job is to look for pitches to drive, but if he doesn’t get one, a walk is the next best result. As Votto points out, their advanced approaches, which lead to high walk totals (Votto’s 18.1 percent walk rate leads the National League), mean they always provide value to their teams even if they’re not hitting.
“Yeah, I take pride in it ... because I think that style ages well, and it avoids slumps,” Votto said. “I have not been healthy this year on a consistent basis, and I’ve still had a fine year. I’m still providing value for the team, despite how I’ve felt physically. And I’m going to continue to do that because it’s one of the skills that I have. That’s the sort of skill that has a chance to stick with me the rest of my career.”
And it’s putting together a strong, productive career that’s the ultimate goal. Right now, Rizzo is just working on one full season.
“It’s very difficult, but Anthony’s doing very well,” Votto said. “The numbers point to a difference in performance and how, relative to his peers, he’s done better than most.”
But Rizzo knows he can still get better.
“Every day,” Rizzo said when asked if he picks the brains of those around him, specifically his hitting coaches and first base coach Eric Hinske. “One at-bat, I’ll get out of my approach, [and] they’ll calm me down, because I’ll be mad, obviously. Every day is a learning process. I think Miguel Cabrera is still learning as well.”
Miguel Cabrera. Maybe Rizzo should make plans to train with him next offseason.