As Cubs Phenoms Grab Eyes, Anthony Rizzo Has Become Top-10 MLB Hitter

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 15, 2015

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For a team that hasn't won a World Series in over 100 years and came into 2015 off a string of five straight losing seasons, it's remarkable just how much hype the Chicago Cubs are generating.

Quite a lot of that is due to the emergence of top prospects Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell. But while that's perfectly OK—seriously, they're awesomethey're overshadowing another young talent whose efforts should actually be pushing the Cubs hype meter even higher.

His name is Anthony Rizzo, and you must know of his stupendousness. 

If you haven't been keeping up with current affairs, the 25-year-old first baseman has been on a tear. He went into Thursday's action hitting .348 with five home runs and a 1.238 OPS over his last 12 games. And overall, his numbers for 2015 looked like this:

Anthony Rizzo's 2015 Season

Every single one of those numbers looks good, but there's one in particular that really highlights just how dominant Rizzo has been. 

That would be OPS+, a version of OPS that's adjusted for parks and leagues and put on a scale where 100 is average. Rizzo thus entered Thursday 89 ticks better than average, putting him at No. 6 among the league's top qualified hitters.

And the hell of it is, merely noting where Rizzo stands in 2015 is actually underselling how good he is at hitting baseballs.

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Rizzo also had a brilliant season in 2014, of course, hitting .286 with a .913 OPS and a 153 OPS+. Add that to his 2015 OPS+, and here's where you'll find him on the 2014-15 OPS+ leaderboard:

  1. Mike Trout: 168
  2. Paul Goldschmidt: 167
  3. Jose Abreu: 164
  4. Anthony Rizzo: 158

So, never mind the top 10. Rizzo might actually be one of the five best hitters in Major League Baseball.

Knowing where Rizzo was less than two years ago, this is quite the turnaround.

He ended 2013 with just a .233 average, .742 OPS and 103 OPS+, which qualified him as a barely above-average hitter. Since that was his first full major league season, it was reasonable to worry that maybe he wasn't going to live up to his billing as an elite hitting prospect.

But while that may make it sound like he's become an elite hitter on his talent alone, that's not the case. Rizzo's there mainly because he's proven himself to be a master of one important thing: adjustments.

DAVID BANKS/Associated Press

There may be no bigger buzzword in baseball than "adjustments," as they're often (and rightfully) characterized as the one thing that can solve any problem.

And yet, not every player makes them. As Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer put it to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick, many players display a "false bravado" that renders them too stubborn to change.

But Rizzo? Nope. As Jason McLeod, Chicago's senior vice president of player development, told Crasnick:

Anthony's attitude is, 'I have to get better at this, and what am I going to do to make myself better?' And he's not afraid to go out there and do it through real-life experience. ... He's wired right and the makeup is right that he's going to get the most out of his ability.

Read a quote like that, and you'll get the urge to go treasure-hunting for specific adjustments. The beauty of Rizzo's game, though, is just how many treasure chests the hunt turns up.

The most recent adjustment Rizzo has made involves his approach. You can tell just by looking at how he's drawn three more walks (20) than strikeouts (17) that he must be putting together better at-bats, and the below-the-surface numbers bear that out.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, here's a look the progression of Rizzo's swing (Swing%), chase (O-Swing%) and whiff (SwStr%) rates since 2011:

Anthony Rizzo's Approach

Rizzo wasn't a wild swinger before 2015, as his figures in these particular categories were right around the league average. All the same, you wouldn't have mistaken him for Joey Votto.

But now, you actually can mistake him for Votto. Rizzo's approach is now advanced enough to basically work as a model approach. If Conan the Barbarian was a baseball player, he'd say that disciplined hitters who make a lot of contact are what is best in life. That's what Rizzo has become.

Granted, this is largely a result of how Rizzo is being pitched. He's seeing only 37.3 percent of pitches in the strike zone, tying him with Matt Holliday for the lowest rate in baseball. That tells you just how much pitchers have come to fear Rizzo.

And they darn well should be fearing him. After his latest adjustment, he's now pretty much out of weaknesses.

It used to be that a team could beat Rizzo by simply throwing a good left-hander at him. When 2013 came to a close, he was a .194 career hitter with a .617 OPS against southpaws. 

Things have changed just a bit since then. Since the start of 2014, Rizzo is a .323 hitter with a .970 OPS against left-handed pitching.

The reason for this? Scott Strandberg of FanGraphs found one last October, noting that Rizzo stopped letting lefties beat him on outside pitches. With some help from Baseball Savant, we can put numbers to that:

Anthony Rizzo vs. Outside Pitches from LHP
Baseball Savant

Rizzo used to make himself an easy out on outside pitches from southpaws. Now, he feasts on them.

Another thing Rizzo used to struggle with was good velocity. In fact, this was one of the more notable concerns scouts had about him back in 2011, as ESPN.com's Buster Olney could attest:

Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN

Rival evaluator on Anthony Rizzo:"My concern(for SD) is that he is Hee-Seop Choi. Any fastball that starts with a '9' is a problem for him."

According to Crasnick, Hoyer, who was the GM of the Padres at the time, sat Rizzo down and confronted him with this problem. He responded by taking it in stride, and his work resulted in a .307 average against 90-plus heat in 2012.

It's in 2015, however, that Rizzo is peaking against the hard stuff. Albeit with modest power, he's hitting 90-plus heat at a career-best .362 clip.

As such, Rizzo isn't dominating simply because he's improved his approach. In improving against left-handed pitching and good heat, he's also taken away the two primary weapons teams used to have against him. Thus, he has made it exceedingly difficult to gain an advantage against him.

And even when a pitcher does have an advantage, it's not really much of an advantage.

There's not a hitter alive who becomes a bigger threat in two-strike counts, and Rizzo is no different. But as these numbers show, he has made himself into a much tougher out when he has two strikes on him:

Anthony Rizzo in Two-Strike Counts

For perspective, the league-average OPS in two-strike counts over the last two seasons is just .506, and hitters have struck out over 40 percent of the time in such counts. In the last two seasons, Rizzo has hugely outperformed both of those figures.

Why? Mainly because he becomes a different hitter in two-strike counts.

"We have a term—it's the 'same pattern, smaller movements,'" Cubs hitting coach John Mallee told Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. "He does the same thing, but he makes them all shorter so his swing is shorter and he has more time to see the ball. The goal with the shorter movements is contact, and the more contact you make with two strikes, you get the ball in play."

It's not hard to see what Mallee is talking about when you turn to the video. When Rizzo has less than two strikes on him, his setup at the plate looks like this:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

You can see the big leg kick, and you can also see his hands are pretty far apart from his body. It's an exaggerated load meant to produce hard contact, and it generally works. 

But with two strikes, Rizzo looks like this:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

You can see how Rizzo replaces his big leg kick with more of a toe-tap timing mechanism, and his hands are also a little tighter to his body. That's "same pattern, smaller movements" at work, and the idea is essentially to go from seeking hard contact to seeking contact, period.

Rizzo has been pursuing it since 2012, so his two-strike approach isn't anything new. But as his numbers prove, he's clearly gotten more comfortable with it over time. By keeping his strikeouts down and his production above par, it's working as it's intended to work.

So when we say say Rizzo has "become" one of the elite hitters in baseball, we mean he really has become one of the elite hitters in baseball. Though he obviously has talent, his rise to power is more a case of hard work paying off than it is of natural talent simply doing its thing.

The longer he keeps it up, the harder it will be for him to keep what he's done a secret. It seems most everyone is excited about what the Cubs could do in the future, but they have a legitimate chance to do something special in the present.

And more so than any other Cub, it's Rizzo who's responsible for that.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked, and are current through Wednesday, May 13.

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