Rizzo's power numbers obscure 'softer' side

Anthony Rizzo increasingly is having success on at-bats where he doesn't get all of the ball. Scott Kane/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- The National League home run leader must be crushing the baseball this season, right? Anthony Rizzo couldn't have set a career high in home runs already by slapping the ball all over the field. He couldn't have raised his batting average from .233 at the end of 2013 to .285 heading into Thursday night’s game against the San Diego Padres by blooping balls in.

Or could he?

According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats and Information, Rizzo is surprisingly making softer contact this year than he did last when he hit 23 home runs. He has 25 and counting this season.

Simon writes: “Last season, Rizzo hit the ball hard in 21 percent of his at-bats, which ranked 30th among the 356 players with at least 200 plate appearances. That put him in the top eight percent of players. He was right alongside Orioles slugger Chris Davis. This season, one in which Rizzo has already surpassed his 2013 home-run total, he’s only hit the ball hard in 16 percent of his at-bats (coincidentally, his rate is the same as Davis’ again). That ranks 138th out of 258 players. Yes, that’s right. Rizzo is hitting the ball hard at a below-average rate.”

That’s counterintuitive considering how often Rizzo has left the park and been on base. But Rizzo only has 15 doubles compared to the 40 he hit last year. He’s simply taking more advantage of the balls he’s squaring up. Instead of a double to the gap he’s leaving the park as he’s done 25 times on 57 hard hit balls. Last year he did it just 23 times on 129 hard-contact hits.

Here’s another example of driving the balls he’s squaring up instead of settling for less, according to Simon: “Last season he had 27 hard-hit ground balls. This year he has two.”

In other words, he’s not missing very often on the ones he likes. There’s more, as Simon broke down “medium-hit” balls and “softly-hit” ones as well. Common sense says balls hit on the outside half of the plate may not be hit as hard as inside ones as pull power is taken away.

“Last season, Rizzo hit .217 in at-bats that ended with pitches on the outer third of the plate (or off the outside corner),” Simon says. “This season, he’s at .298 and has nearly as many hits on those pitches (51) as he did last season (59). What changed for Rizzo is that he isn’t hitting the fly balls to left field on these pitches that he was last season. This season, those balls have gone more to the middle of the diamond, and the benefits have emerged.”

Rizzo is going up the middle 35 percent of the time this year compared to 27 percent last season, hence the rise from .217 to .298 on outside pitches. That’s not insignificant.

Another huge difference from last year to this one is Rizzo’s effectiveness on softly-hit balls. Some might chalk this up to luck -- his batting average on balls in play is .299 compared to .258 last year -- but a change in his approach is just as responsible. Going back to spring training Rizzo has been hitting the ball to the left side or up the middle more than ever, especially against left-handed pitching. The results are an out rate of less than 5-to-1 this season on softly-hit balls compared to 10-to-1 last year. If you get hits 20 percent of the time on softly-hit balls, that’s not bad.

It sounds less counterintuitive now that you see the numbers. A better hitter is going to take what the pitcher is giving him more and that result might not mean the hardest-hit ball but it could mean some extra hits along the way. And a more mature Rizzo is putting his bat on mistake pitches like he’s never done before. Rizzo has even bunted several times against the shift furthering the “soft-hit” theory.

The results have been fantastic as Rizzo is on-base more and hitting for more power. And he proves that not every positive result comes from a hard-hit ball, even though that’s the goal for every hitter who enters the batter’s box.