From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs Rizzo showing power and patience

RIZZO_Feature

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following story can be found in the August issue of Vine Line.

Of course Anthony Rizzo has seen the video. Like so many others who saw it happen live or viewed the highlight replay with mouths agape, Rizzo has watched the home run he hit off the Reds’ Alfredo Simon on June 23.

The blast (pictured on our August cover) was ridiculous—and nearly impossible. Simon threw Rizzo a high, hanging breaking ball that was so far off the plate the Cubs’ first baseman almost needed the proverbial 10-foot pole to reach it. But he did more than just reach it. He hit it well out over the left-field wall at Wrigley Field.

If Rizzo was impressed with himself, it wasn’t for the reasons you might think. Sure, it was a home run, but more important for the slugger, it was a piece of hitting that summed up how things have been going for him this season.

“The biggest thing is if I was trying to hit a home run there, I would have rolled over to the second baseman,” he said. “I just saw the pitch and went with it. That’s really all I need to do is just put a good swing on the ball. Good things have been happening. Fortunately enough, it was lifted in the air.

“I saw the ball well. I saw it up, out.”

At this point, bells should go off, heads should nod, and hallelujahs should be sung to the rafters, for therein lies the key to Rizzo’s success. Despite the fact that he is one of the Cubs’ veteran players, he just turned 25 years old this month, which means he’s still learning to be a major league hitter. And this season, it seems like he’s taken a big developmental step forward. Though he hasn’t necessarily altered his approach, the results have changed dramatically for the better.

As Monday’s 4-1 win over the Mets—one where he ripped a go-ahead home run—Rizzo’s on-base percentage was nearly 40 points above his career norm. His .376 OBP ranks ninth in the NL.

Through his first 122 games, Rizzo had a hitting line of .276/.376/.507 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 28 home runs, 67 RBI, 64 walks and 100 strikeouts. If you extrapolate those numbers over an entire season, they’re pretty darn good, which is why some are now grouping the 2014 All-Star in with the elite first basemen in the game.

But before you start talking about him having a bounceback season after “struggling” in 2013, know this: Anthony Rizzo carries a quiet defiance about the kind of season he had last year, when he hit .233/.323/.419 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI.

“I think last year was a good year,” he said. “I drove in a lot of runs. I walked a good amount (76 times). I had a lot of doubles (40). But the average obviously wasn’t there, and some people look at average. Some people don’t. In my opinion, it wasn’t a bad year. It wasn’t a great year, but it was kind of a baseline year.”

CORE IMPROVEMENT

That said, this year has felt completely different from last year for both Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the spotlight has been laser focused on the Cubs’ young cornerstone players. If the team plans to contend soon, it needs both—each signed to team-friendly, long-term contracts—to show better than what they did last year.

To help that along, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer hired new manager Rick Renteria to surround the Cubs’ young players with an aura of positivity and encouragement. Along with the new manager came a new hitting coach in Bill Mueller. While Renteria and Mueller knew all about Rizzo, they arrived with fresh perspectives and no preconceived notions.

“Coming in, you just go on what you’ve seen from video watching or from when they came in and played the Dodgers, seeing a glimpse,” said Mueller, who was with Los Angeles’ front office last year. “So there was nothing I had really built up until getting here and getting to know the guys personally and then seeing them before that relationship [started] to grow.

“He’s a very talented player, first off. I think with the new breath of fresh air with Ricky and the staff, that’s been a nice complement to come into the season. The whole staff has handled this group in a very positive way. That type of atmosphere has led some of these guys to have good starts.”

Renteria said he noticed the positive vibes emanating from Rizzo from the beginning of Spring Training. The new skipper also had time to visit with his first baseman during the Cubs Caravan and the Cubs Convention in January.

“He came into this season—to the spring, actually—with an idea that he wanted to improve on using a little bit more of the field, having better at-bats, not chasing pitches in off the plate,” Renteria said. “He’s done a really nice job of adjusting to doing that. I think he made a very big, conscious effort of working on his approach.

“When you have guys that are learning how to hit and have power, I think your approaches can pay big dividends because when you start squaring up the ball, the strength, in and of itself, gives you an opportunity to drive the ball out of the ballpark. That’s been really, really good. We’re really happy with the way he’s progressing, and hopefully it continues.”

THE PROCESS

Unlike the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto—a player many compare Rizzo’s abilities to—who is willing to talk swing mechanics and hitting all day long, Rizzo is generally content to let others analyze his approach. In fact, he doesn’t really appear to like talking about himself when it comes to hitting.

“I kind of have the same mindset every year,” Rizzo said. “I work pretty hard in the offseason with my trainer. Really, it was no different this past year. [It was] the same things we’ve done the last five or six years in the offseason. It was getting ready for the season. At the same time, I didn’t hit more or less. I just stayed with it. I came to spring and wanted to get confident again.”

The comparisons between Rizzo’s combination of power and patience and Votto’s might be more apt than people realize. This winter, Rizzo was able to spend some quality batting-cage time with the 2010 NL MVP while the pair, along with Padres pitcher Casey Kelly, worked out together in Florida.

Like Rizzo, the Reds’ standout is a left-handed batter—and if there’s anyone a young player should want to emulate, it’s stat geek darling Votto, who gets on base at a dizzying rate. Given Major League Baseball’s grinding schedule and a rash of injuries, Votto hasn’t been able to watch much of Rizzo in 2014, but he likes what he has seen.

“I haven’t been able to see him enough, but I definitely see improvement in performance—more home runs, obviously, and a guy who seems to be walking a little bit more,” Votto said. “He’s a cool guy. He’s a nice guy. He’s a very, very easy guy to get along with. I can see why he’s having the type of success he’s having. He’s very talented.”

It can be difficult at times for left-handed hitters to hit left-handed pitchers, but that’s been another marked improvement for Rizzo this year. After going .189/.282/.342 with just seven of his 23 homers against left-handed pitchers a year ago, Rizzo put up a .302/.407/.516 with eight homers against lefties.

“For me, it’s just seeing the ball,” he said. “It’s never comfortable facing left-handers, especially the relievers who are just nasty. I just focus on seeing the ball. I feel if I see it, my hands will be good enough to put the bat on it.”

Generally, when left-handed hitters have success against left-handed pitchers, it’s because they try to go with the pitch, and by doing so, they “see” it longer on its path to the plate. But for a hitter as naturally gifted as Rizzo, it also has a lot to do with confidence.

“The general key might be that you have a lot of confidence in yourself right against left, and when you have things in your mind that you can attach your confidence to when you get in that box, those things sometimes translate,” Mueller said. “I think that’s what’s happening to Riz. He’s very confident in spots, and those translations are happening whether it’s a lefty or a righty, whether it’s a starter or a reliever. He’s putting together some really good approaches and some good at-bats. Sometimes when things are really starting off on the right foot, that carries over a little bit. You can gain some momentum with that.”

Given the preponderance of advanced stats and information available these days to even the casual fan, it’s easy to analyze—and overanalyze—a player’s performance. Whether or not you think Rizzo had a down year last year, whether or not you think his new approach is here to stay, whether or not you think he’s on pace to become a perennial All-Star, it’s important to remember failure is a big part of the sport, and the best players are able to learn from their struggles. Ultimately, baseball is a game, and it should be fun.

“I always tell myself, even now when I struggle, that it’s a process,” Rizzo said. “You look at guys throughout the year who have progressed every year and have gotten better, and that’s all you really want to do is just get better every year. The more at-bats you get, the more you feel like you’re going to learn in this league. It’s just a process.

“It was fun last year. It was. What’s fun about it is you put all this work in and when you do get results, it’s nice and rewarding. But it’s still fun. It sounds weird, but when you struggle, you appreciate the game too because it’s so hard. You have to have fun here. It’s too long of a season not to have fun whether you’re going good or bad. It’s about staying even-keeled whether you’re going good or bad. You have to come in and be the same person.”

—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald

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