CHICAGO -- It’s that time of the year for the Chicago Cubs. No, not time to look forward to the postseason, but time to look back and evaluate.
How do the Cubs stars view their season? First baseman Anthony Rizzo sat down for a lengthy discussion of his season. At .231 with 22 home runs, 77 runs batted in, 74 walks and 124 strikeouts entering play Monday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, it’s been a mixed bag for him on offense.
Rizzo describes and analyzes his first full season in the major leagues with an inside look at some statistics to help along the way:
“It’s been a fun year [being] in the big leagues all year,” Rizzo said. “Everything is first class, and you get to come to the ballpark and play in front of 30,000-plus fans. It’s been a fun year.”
Just because it’s been fun doesn’t mean it’s been an easy ride for the 24-year-old. Between losing a lot of games and hearing the criticism of his offense -- at times -- he’s not immune to some tough days.
“The one thing that stands out is the batting average, and that’s what fans look at, but you look around my other numbers, they’re pretty good,” Rizzo stated. “And, obviously, if my average is up, how much better they could be.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rizzo’s .231 batting average ranks 132 out of 142 hitters who qualify. And he’s hitting just .184 with runners in scoring position. That ranks 137th.
“That’s something that’s been really weird to me because I’ve always hit with runners in scoring position,” Rizzo said. “It’s not something that’s bothered me because I know I can do it. This year has just been weird. It’s crazy to finish with around 80 RBI and be below .200, which is insane to have that amount of RBIs. I want to be a guy that consistently drives in over 100 runs a year. It’s something I need to get better at, but it’s something I know will get better.”
Also puzzling is Rizzo’s batting average on fastballs. It’s just .238, another stat that places him among the worst in the league. Last season, he hit .301, so either teams are setting him up better or he's just having a bad season against that pitch.
But the confidence he displays comes with a further understanding of his numbers. The goal of any player is to hit the ball hard, to hit line drives. Rizzo is smack-dab in the middle of the pack in this category, hitting them 20.8 percent of the time. But they’re not landing. That’s why his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is only .257, ranked 134th among all hitters.
“I’ve hit some balls really hard this year that haven’t fallen the way I wanted them, but what are you going to do? It’s baseball,” Rizzo said.
The only thing he can do is keep working. If there is an element of luck involved, then the numbers should start to turn the other way – if he continues to work at it.
“Staying within myself, trying not to do too much at the plate,” Rizzo said of his goal to raise his average. “It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. When I get pull-happy, I get into trouble. It’s more taking that consistent approach every day and not letting a little slump bother you here or there. And defensively never taking your offense into the field.”
Rizzo’s defense hasn't been talked about enough. Admittedly, he had a rough start, but April is long forgotten considering he’s made just five errors in 1,395 chances. A .996 fielding percentage will get you into the conversation for a Gold Glove.
“It can get better,” Rizzo said of his defense. “I made a couple errors this year that have really ticked me off since they are such simple plays. That’s just the every-pitch focus. That’s the main thing I want to improve on. Every single pitch, be ready. You have to be ready like it’s the World Series and every pitch matters. I have five errors, I want to have zero errors.”
Five miscues might win him the award anyway. His range is near the top of the league among first baseman, and, according to some advanced stats, he’s saved the Cubs 15 runs, tops among first baseman. A few scoops of a ball in the dirt have helped his cause.
“It’s my job to make the stretches, make those [scoop catches] look easy for them so they get the glory and I’m just the guy catching the ball,” Rizzo said with a smile.
Rizzo has tried to be a sponge at first base, getting to know opponents and umpires alike. It’s all been a learning process.
“You ask how things are going,” he said. “How’s baseball going? How’s life going? Everyone is out here grinding, so you kind of loosen it up a little. Take the grind out of it.”
You have to believe the grind becomes easier when your team in in contention. To focus in September without a sniff of the postseason has to be harder than vice versa. Rizzo is waiting for the day.
“I saw the numbers [touted prospect Javier] Baez put up the other day,” Rizzo said. “It’s amazing, but everything has to translate to the big league level. That’s the hardest thing to do.”
And if and when it does, Rizzo might finally play a full season of meaningful games. His first season and a half have been full of anything but.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “It’s something that has to become a winning way. That’s what we have to embrace here and kind of brand ourselves not expecting anything else but winning.”