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Cubs: Anthony Rizzo is Returning to Form

After a sluggish start to the 2018 season, Cubs' slugging first-baseman Anthony Rizzo is returning to form at the perfect time.

Throughout his tenure with the Chicago Cubs, Anthony Rizzo has developed into one of the most consistent players in all of baseball and a cornerstone for the North Sider’s. In each of the last four seasons, Rizzo has clubbed 30 or more home runs, while logging at least 100 RBI in each of the last three seasons (2015-2017).

Those seasons were made possible by Rizzo’s approach at the plate, a combination of sacrificing power for contact with two strikes while still being able to work counts and generate a high number of walks. That approach resulted in season after season of below average strikeout percentages and above average walk percentages.

Rizzo’s success came to a head in 2017 when the left-handed slugger belted 32 home runs and drove in 109 runs for the second consecutive season. While that in itself was impressive and helped propel the 27-year-old to finish 13th in the NL MVP voting, Rizzo finished the season with more walks (91) than strikeouts (90) for the first time in his career. After never recording a walk rate higher than 11.9 percent in a season (excluding his rookie year), Rizzo posted a 13.2 walk percentage in 2017 while setting a career-low strikeout percentage of just 13 percent.

Rizzo Gets off to Slow Start in 2018

While in prior years Rizzo has jumped out to a quick start to begin a season (. 264 career batting average in April before 2018), the slugger kicked off the 2018 season in a huge slump. In his first 17 at-bats, Rizzo logged just two hits with one being an Opening Day home run. Things did not get much better for the Cubs’ first baseman as he recorded just nine hits the entire month of April. Granted, Rizzo did miss eight games with a stiff back. Despite that, the 28-year-old managed a .158/.273/.158 slash line in April and was hitting just .149 to begin play on May 1.

Behind Rizzo’s bad month was an inability to make hard contact while hitting a ton of ground balls and striking out at an elevated level. In March and April, Rizzo logged a 17.6 percent strikeout rate. While that is still below league average, the slugger has not recorded a number that high since the 2014 season. To make matters worse, Rizzo worked very few walks in the opening months of the season, managing a 4.7 percent walk rate through the end of April.

Sporting a Javier Baez-like walk rate, Rizzo struggled to get on base, logging a .259 OBP and .448 OPS in March and April. To go along with that, Rizzo logged a .041 ISO, .172 BABIP and 31 wRC+.

Rizzo Finds His Groove

Entering May, the numbers could not get much worse for Rizzo. In total, Rizzo managed zero doubles, one home run, nine RBI and just four walks.

Despite his struggles, there were not many people worried about the seasoned Cubs’ cornerstone, and for good reason. To begin May, Rizzo hit safely in four straight games with two of them being multi-hit contests. In that same stretch, Rizzo mashed three home runs, raising his slugging percentage from .231 to .319 in four games.

All told, Rizzo hit .303 in the month of May, notching six doubles, seven home runs and 28 RBI. Perhaps the most important aspect of Rizzo’s May success was his increased patience at the plate. In 26 games, Rizzo worked 18 walks, logging a solid 15 percent walk rate, while striking out just ten times or 8.3 percent of the time.

After struggling through the first month of the season, it was nice to see Rizzo regain his patience at the dish and get back to working counts and becoming an OBP machine like he has been most of his career.

In addition to returning his walk rate back to its lofty standards, Rizzo once again began to drive the ball with authority. Through the end of April, Rizzo owned a hard contact percentage of 30.5 percent after averaging better than 33 percent each of the last three seasons. That low number, however, was returned to normal when Rizzo logged a 36.3 percent hard contact rate in May.

To go along with that, Rizzo started to spray the ball more following the month of April, recording an 18.7 percent opposite field hit percentage, a number up from 17 percent at the beginning of the season. Perhaps the driving force behind Rizzo’s offensive turn-around in May was his ability to get the ball in the air more. At the end of April, Rizzo was hitting balls on the ground 39.7 percent of the time, while recording a 20.7 percent line-drive rate. In May, both of those numbers evened out at 28.6 percent while Rizzo’s fly ball percentage increased to 42.9, up from 39.7 percent.

After digging what seemed to be an impossible hole to climb out of at the beginning of the season, Rizzo has rebounded quite nicely. Even though his walk rate has taken a hit in June (less than seven percent), the left-hander currently owns a 10.4 mark, less than one percent off his career average. To go along with that, Rizzo is sitting on a 12.4 percent strikeout rate, which would be the lowest of his career if it holds.

Despite that, Rizzo’s overall numbers are down. After going 1-for-4 on Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rizzo is slashing .246/.344/.433. That puts his ISO at .187, a number that has not been below .234 since the 2013 season. With that being said, Rizzo has increased that number every month so far this season, topping out at .296 thus far in June.

Perhaps the biggest tale of Rizzo’s back-bounce months is his increase in wRC+. As noted above, Rizzo notched a wRC+ of just 31 through April 30. Since then, the slugger has posted a 159 mark in May and a 126 mark so far in June, numbers that line up with his 130 career wRC+. Because of those above average months, Rizzo is now sporting a wRC+ of 109 or nine percent above league average.

Rizzo is Getting Hot at the Right Time

When the month of May began, the Cubs were enjoying a five-game win streak, pushing their record to 16-10 on the season. However, over the first six days of May, the Cubs lost five games, bottoming out at 16-15. Since May 6, the Cubs own a 21-10 record and currently sit 12 games over .500 and just a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the NL Central.

This run by the Cubs would not have been possible without the MVP-caliber of play by Rizzo over the last month and a half. As stated above, Rizzo had drove in just nine runs when the calendar flipped to May. After recording 28 RBI in the month of May and eight more thus far in June, Rizzo is now tied for fifth in the National League with 45 RBI, just one shy of Baez’s 46.

Now that Rizzo is beginning to figure things out offensively, the Cubs are starting to once again look like a team that can go deep into October for the fourth straight season.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter

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1 comment on “Cubs: Anthony Rizzo is Returning to Form

  1. Pingback: Cubs' Offense Elite Without Superstar Performances

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