Anthony Rizzo, Who Now Hits Lefties

A couple months ago, Landon Jones wrote this column about Anthony Rizzo’s impressive adjustments in 2014. In that piece, Landon focused on Rizzo’s improvement against fastballs, as well as his altered approach. Obviously, not much has changed since Landon wrote that article, so I’m not going to bother retreading any territory he already covered (especially since I agree with his analysis).

However, there is one area of Rizzo’s game that I feel we could certainly talk a bit more about, and that’s his newfound ability to hit southpaws. This has always been my big reservation with Rizzo, stretching back to his days as a prospect, and it wasn’t so much a bat-speed issue for me, as it was concern regarding his swing plane.

It’s not uncommon at all for lefty power hitters to struggle against same-handed pitching, but Rizzo’s long swing — and pronounced uppercut — always made me especially concerned about his ability to adjust to hitting lefties at the major-league level.

Up until this year, my concerns seemed to have been confirmed. Let’s examine his numbers against lefties as he ascended through the minors:

  • High-A (2009-2010) – .256/.310/.350, .660 OPS
  • Double-A (2010) – .207/.281/.380, .662 OPS
  • Triple-A (2011-2012) – .305/.352/.551, .903 OPS

There’s certainly not much to like in those two years he spent in High-A and Double-A, but it seemed like he figured things out in Triple-A. Sure, about 60% of that Triple-A sample was in Tucson — a hitter-friendly park in a hitter-friendly league — but he carried over the production in Iowa, which is not exactly a hitter’s haven.

However, in the big leagues, that Triple-A production seemed to fade into a distant memory, as he struggled tremendously through his first 350 plate appearances against same-handed pitching:

  • MLB (pre-2014) – .194/.263/.347, .610 OPS

Then came 2014, when Rizzo terrorized southpaws, shredding them to a degree he had never shown before at any level:

  • MLB (2014) – .300/.421/.507, .928 OPS

In digging through Rizzo’s data, it became clear that he improved in just about every way possible against lefties in 2014. However, there was one particular area that jumped out to me. Left-handed pitchers have always stuck to a specific plan of attack against Rizzo:

Throughout Rizzo’s major-league career, lefties have pounded him outside the zone low and away, and until this year, that worked. Rizzo did swing less at those pitches in 2014, but what Rizzo really excelled at this year wasn’t just his ability to lay off those pitches, but to also generate drastically fewer whiffs when he did swing. Check out his whiff rate against southpaws pre-2014…

…and now the same data set, but from this season…

Lefties are going to have to find a new plan of attack against Rizzo. He has completely ruined their previously tried-and-true approach to getting him out, cutting down his whiff rate by about 50% in the exact spot lefties have always attacked him.

Obviously, the question here is whether to trust Rizzo’s development, and expect him to carry over his improvement against southpaws into the future. After all, he seemed to have it figured out once before, back in Triple-A. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see if/how lefties change the way they pitch to him, and whether he can make the necessary adjustments in return.

Personally, I’m betting on this being the real version of Anthony Rizzo. While he likely won’t ever have another year with a higher OPS against lefties than against righties, the improvements he made this season came as the result of dramatic approach-based changes to his gameplan. Those are the kinds of adjustments that I most trust to carry over.

The future is brighter than ever for Rizzo, and as the Cubs add guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to the lineup, his fantasy outlook will only get brighter still.

We hoped you liked reading Anthony Rizzo, Who Now Hits Lefties by Scott Strandberg!

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Matt
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Matt

He hit lefties better in AAA than the majors. The only reason that his OPS was higher in the majors was plate discipline. But if we’re just talking “shredding” as in ISO/SLG, he was better in AAA.