Cubs' Anthony Rizzo Emerging as One of NL's Best 1st Basemen in 2014

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Cubs' Anthony Rizzo Emerging as One of NL's Best 1st Basemen in 2014
AP Images

With the Chicago Cubs stuck in the midst of yet another losing season, it's understandable that Anthony Rizzo's performance has been overlooked this year. But the still-developing first baseman is becoming one of the best first basemen in the National League, and he showed as much Tuesday night in leading Chicago to a 7-3 road win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The 24-year-old went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a home run, and he scored and drove in three runs apiece, meaning Rizzo was responsible for six of the Cubs' seven runs.

Among the first base hierarchy in the NL, there's obviously the Goldy standard—Paul Goldschmidt was runner-up for NL MVP last year and is doing his thing again in 2014. After that, however, there's currently a Joey Votto vacancy, with the former MVP battling a quad injury and an ongoing power outage.

Ralph Freso/Associated Press/Associated Press
NL MVP runner-up Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt remains the Senior Circuit's best first baseman.

Also up for consideration is last year's breakout star, Freddie Freeman. And there are still the aging but productive Adrian Gonzalez, the slow-starting Allen Craig and injured upstart Brandon Belt.

Beyond that, veterans such as Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau are having mighty fine campaigns, too, but their best days are behind them. And let's not even bother with Ryan Howard, OK?

As for Rizzo, well, there's a case to be made that not only is he becoming a star—as pointed out in the above tweet—but also that he's actually been the most productive first baseman in the Senior Circuit through two-plus months.

"I just feel very confident and that's everything in this game," Rizzo said following his big performance, according to Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. "I don't care what anyone says. Whether your mechanics are good or bad, if you're feeling confident at the plate, it makes a huge difference."

Here's a rundown that shows exactly where Rizzo ranks among his NL brethren in several key categories:

Anthony Rizzo's Rankings Among NL First Basemen (2014)
STATISTIC RIZZO NL 1B RANK
BA .284 5
OBP .406 2
SLG .514 2
OPS .920 3
R 42 2
HR 13 T-1
RBI 36 4
ISO .229 4
wRC+ 151 1
fWAR 2.1 1

FanGraphs

While Rizzo is still young, his success has been rather gradual, and his route to it rather circuitous. Remember, he was traded twice as a top prospect: first by the Boston Red Sox to the San Diego Padres for Gonzalez, before landing in Chicago in exchange for right-hander Andrew Cashner.

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As Rizzo was breaking into the bigs, there were immense initial struggles. He hit just .141/.281/.242 in 49 games back in 2011, his first shot at the majors leaving a particularly bad taste. And while he showed plenty of promise in 2012 (.285/.342/.463 in 87 games), he went backward last year (.233/.323/.419).

So is it too soon to buy into Rizzo's performance in 2014?

He certainly needs to prove he can keep this up over the full season, but there are signs he can. For example, take his improvements when it comes to facing left-handed pitchers, which has been a bugaboo for the lefty-swinging Rizzo in the past.

Against southpaws so far this season, Rizzo has gone 21-for-61 with five homers, including one Tuesday night off Pirates starter Francisco Liriano, who has allowed an OPS north of .900 against same-side hitters in 2014 but normally owns them (.579 OPS career) with his wipeout slider. In fact, it was that very pitch—an 86 mph Liriano slider—that Rizzo sent over the right-field wall.

Just as important, Rizzo has shown real advancements in his plate discipline when he steps in versus left-handers. After striking out nearly two-and-a-half times as much as he walked against them from 2011 through 2013 (74-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio), Rizzo has almost as many free passes (11) as whiffs (14) this season. Sure, it's a small sample size (74 plate appearances), but the numbers are noteworthy.

And yet, not so noteworthy that Rizzo is getting much recognition for his strides and overall performance. In fact, the burgeoning basher isn't even in the top five among NL first basemen in All-Star voting, as Muskat points out.

"The first basemen in this league, they're all All-Stars," Rizzo said, via Muskat, after Tuesday's win. "I'll just keep playing my game and not let it affect me."

While Rizzo deserves a better fate than that, it might not happen—at least not as a voted-in representative in 2014 while the Cubs are hurtling toward their fifth straight losing season.

Rebuilding teams, though, need building blocks, and Rizzo looks like a legitimate one—not to mention one of the NL's best first basemen.

 

Statistics are accurate through June 10 and come from MLB.com, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11.

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