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Anthony Rizzo Leads Cubs into Wild Card Game Against Colorado

Anthony Rizzo will be bringing his hot bat into the Cubs' Wild Card match-up on Tuesday. Daniel Shepard breaks down his second half and team-leading statistics in September here.

Many refer to Anthony Rizzo as “The Captain” of the Chicago Cubs and for good measure. Listed at 6-3, 240 pounds, Rizzo isn’t the typical power-hitting player that seems to dominate the game these days. Yes, the southpaw slugger owns better than 190 home runs in his career, mashing at least 25 every year since 2014, but Rizzo bucks the trend of his long-ball hitting acquaintances, notching low strikeout totals year in and year out.

For his career, Rizzo is sporting a walk rate north of 11 percent, whereas the MLB average has hovered around eight percent the last handful of years. Additionally, the Cubs slugger owns a tiny strikeout rate just 16.1 percent over the course of his 1,061 major league game career.

Rizzo’s knack for getting on base, both via the walk and his better than 1,000 career hits, has propelled the lefty into being a mainstay in the heart of the Cubs batting order. Since joining the Cubs at the beginning of the 2012 season, Rizzo owns a .275/.372/.493 slash line, while at the same time recording an OPS-plus of 131. His 190 career home runs and 626 RBI as a Cub average out to 31 and 101 respectively per 162 games. It’s for that reason (and his wonderful defense at first base) that Rizzo has finished in the top-ten in the National League MVP voting three times (2014-2016) while at the same time earning three All-Star Game selections, a Gold Glove and a Sliver Slugger Award.

More of the Same from Rizzo in 2018

To say Rizzo’s start to the 2018 campaign was rough would be an understatement. Through the end of April (18 games and 74 at-bats), the slugger was hitting just .149 with 10 of his 11 hits going for singles only. His one extra base hit, a home run, produced an ISO of just .041 as Rizzo slugged .189 and logged a wRC+ of 32. Perhaps behind Rizzo’s slump was an uncharacteristically high strikeout rate and low walk rate. At 4.7 percent, Rizzo’s walk rate through April was his lowest of this season while his 17.6 percent strikeout rate represented his highest of the season.

While Rizzo’s slow start was corrected rather quickly by above average months of May (158 wRC+) and June (108 wRC+), his slow beginning to the year hampered his first half numbers. Even with his strikeout rate returning to normal (12.4 percent) prior to the All-Star break, Rizzo owned a .246/.341/.407/.748 line at the break, producing a 101 wRC+.

Perhaps behind Rizzo’s pedestrian first half was a good old fashion case of bad luck. At just .249, Rizzo’s first half BABIP was the 18th lowest among qualified hitters, and was the sixth worst mark in the National League. In addition to his lack of luck, Rizzo had a hard time hitting balls hard as he logged a hard contact rate of 31.8 percent during the first half. For perspective, Rizzo has posted hard contact percentages of at least 33 percent every year since 2015 and has only one full season in which he logged a mark lower than 32 percent (2014).

Thankfully for the Cubs, Rizzo has turned his season around during the second half of play, once again becoming that power-hitting guy with patience in the middle of the order.

Rizzo’s resurgence since June hinged on an increase in his hard hit rate, a number that sat north of 37 percent for this half of play and at 34.1 percent for the overall season. An uptick in that number also caused an increase in just about every power number for Rizzo down the stretch.

His .550 slugging percentage since the break ranked sixth in the National League, 10 points better than his teammate and MVP candidate Javier Baez. Additionally, Rizzo finished the season sixth in the NL with a 157 wRC+ across his 70 games since the All-Star break while at the same time sporting the fifth best OBP in the league (.420) across that same time span.

This bounce back half for Rizzo also included a .329 batting average (fifth highest in the NL) and .221 ISO. Those numbers, coupled with his nearly identical walk (11.3 percent) and strikeout (11.6 percent) rates, all but saved Rizzo’s and perhaps the Cubs’ season.

On the season, Rizzo slashed .283/.376/.470 with a .187 ISO. While his OPS was down around 50 points from last season and almost 100 points from the .928 mark he posted in 2016, the slugger struck out less than he ever has. Since recording a mark north of 17 percent through the end of April, Rizzo did not log a strikeout rate higher than 13.8 percent in any one month, resulting in a 12 percent mark for the southpaw in 2018, a new career best.

The advanced numbers tell us that Rizzo actually chased pitches more this year compared to 2017 when he posted his previous career low strikeout rate of 13 percent. In 2017, Rizzo’s chase percentage sat at 28.1 percent, his lowest during the last four seasons. This year, that number sits at 29.3 percent, more than one percentage point higher than league average but in-line with Rizzo’s career norms. To make up for chasing more pitches, Rizzo is making contact with more of those balls outside of the zone, suggesting more borderline offerings this season compared to years prior. For the season, the southpaw’s chase contact percentage sat at 69.4 percent, better than nine percent above league average and higher than anything he’s posted since at least 2015.

On Sunday, Rizzo collected his 100th RBI of the season for the fourth consecutive year which is a big accomplishment, even in today’s game. That RBI, which came on a double in the third inning, broke a 2-2 tie with the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 162 of the MLB schedule.

Not only did Rizzo have the go-ahead RBI in what would turn out to be a 10-5 victory over the Cardinals that sent the NL Central title race into a 163rd game, but it continued to highlight Rizzo’s contribution to a struggling Cubs’ lineup during the final month of the season.

After scoring one run on just three hits in a 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in that 163rd game, one of which was Rizzo’s 25th home run of the season in the fifth inning, the Cubs finished the regular season with a 78 team wRC+ since September 1, the seventh lowest mark in the majors. To go along with that, Chicago posted a team slugging percentage of just .363 (fourth lowest) which resulted in a lackluster ISO of .127 (also fourth lowest).

Even though the Cubs did not strikeout a ton — their 24.1 percent strikeout rate was 10th best in September — they failed to reach base via the free pass with any regularity, posting the 22nd best walk rate (7.5 percent) in the majors.

Unable to hit for power or draw a high level of walks, it’s no wonder why the Brewers were able to overtake the Cubs as they won each of their last eight games while the North Siders posted a 4-4 record across that same time span.

Rizzo Carried the Cubs in September

If not for Anthony Rizzo, their Gold Glove, power-hitting first baseman, the Cubs very well could have collapsed and not even been around to play in a 163rd game to decide the division.

Of Cubs players with at least 50 plate appearances in the final month of the regular season, Rizzo is at the top in batting average (.306) and OBP (.386), ranks fourth among 11 players with a .449 slugging percentage, sits in second on the team with a 123 wRC+ and recorded a monthly WAR of 0.5, a number that was tied for second on the club, just 0.1 points behind Baez.

Additionally, Rizzo accounted for the third most home runs among that group, blasting three, while at the same time producing the most RBI (15), two ahead of Baez, the only two Cubs players to be in double digits for the month. To cap things off, Rizzo posted the third highest walk rate on the team (9.6 percent) behind strong showings from Kyle Schwarber (16 percent) and Ian Happ (14.9 percent), and perhaps most importantly, finished the month with the second lowest strikeout rate (10.5 percent) on the team.

This month has not been pretty for the Cubs who have watched the Brewers inch closer and eventually take the NL Central title at Wrigley Field, something that would not have been predicted at the beginning of the season. However, that is the position the Cubs currently find themselves in, even with Rizzo’s 5-for-8 performance in Games 162 and 163.

It’s not all bad for the North Siders, however, as they are going to the postseason for the fourth straight year, extending their success under manager Joe Maddon and a dream-team front office. With that being said, winning 95 games means nothing for this team if they get bounced by the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night in the Wild Card Game. The expectations for this team going into 2018 was yet another deep postseason run, perhaps all the way to the World Series after suffering with a title hangover for much of last season.

With one game to decide it all, the Cubs will send Jon Lester to the mound opposite Kyle Freeland for the Rockies. For much of this season, Lester has continued to headline the Cubs’ rotation, earning an All-Star Game selection with his 2.58 first half ERA. The workhorse finished the 2018 season with a 3.32 mark, making at least 30 starts for the 11 straight season and posting a solid 129 ERA-plus.

This is what players play for, postseason baseball. A one game elimination to decide who will face the Brewers on Thursday in Game 1 of the NLDS. The Cubs hope they can prevail, and with Anthony Rizzo in the heart of their order, I would say they have a good shot at doing just that.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times 

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