CHICAGO -- Baseball is a fickle game. A month ago, many were wondering if Chicago Cubs' first baseman Anthony Rizzo could bounce back from a disappointing 2013 season. Could Rizzo hit lefties? Would the tendency for defenses to shift sink the pull-prone hitter? Was his spike in strikeouts last season a sign of things to come? Just 28 games into the season, the tune on Rizzo has changed once again.
Rizzo came into Sunday night's game against the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals with an impressive .296/.421/.520 line. It's not just a strong slash line that has people believing in Rizzo, a deeper look at the numbers makes one confident that his strong start may be a young player merely beginnings to scratch the surface of his immense talents.
"He's just growing up," manager Rick Renteria said. "He's worked very hard over the winter, worked very hard over the spring. I think he's making a tremendous mental adjustment as to how he wants to approach pitchers, kind of knows what they're trying to do with him. All those things that come with maturation and growing and learning through his experiences."
Rizzo is fifth in the NL with a 16.5 percent walk rate (just behind elite offensive talents like Joey Votto and Troy Tulowitzki) and his strikeout rate, which was a cause for concern for some last year, is down to 14.9 percent after peaking at 18.4 percent last season. As for those struggles against lefties? He's posting a robust 1.172 OPS in 40 plate appearances against southpaws.
"All in all, his approaches, in terms of two-strike approaches, his approaches against lefties have been extremely strong," Renteria said. "Numbers-wise, he didn't have a bad season last year. In terms of his approaches, they've continued to improve. I think he's maturing, I think he's gaining more and more confidence. He's hitting the ball to all fields now and he obviously has the strength, if he gets a pitch to handle, he can drive it out of the ballpark."
After not displaying much power in the first few weeks of the season, some wondered if Rizzo had sacrificed power for patience. He has quickly quieted those whispers after hitting home runs in each of his last three games, giving him six on the season.
And Renteria isn't off base by suggesting last season wasn't as bad as some made it out to be. Rizzo's walk rate (11.0 percent) and isolated power (.186, which is slugging minus batting average, giving a very good indication of a player's power) were both improved from 2012, it was just his poor .233 batting average that brought down his overall numbers. A .258 BABIP certainly hurt that (it's up to .307 this season, which is much more reasonable and sustainable) and, as Renteria pointed out, his improved approach against lefties and ability to go the other way has helped get him going in the right direction.
What may be most impressive about Rizzo's play this season is how he's forcing pitchers to throw him strikes. Not only has Rizzo's walk rate increased every season he has been with the Cubs, but so has his ability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone. According to PITCHf/x data, over the last three seasons, Rizzo has gone from offering to pitches outside the zone at 38.5 percent of the time, to 30.0 percent in 2013, all the way down to 23.3 percent through five weeks in 2014 (in fact, he's swinging less overall, making sure he's swinging at the pitches he wants rather than succumbing to a pitcher nibbling on the margins). He's not quite at Votto levels, but it's impressive nonetheless.
"A lot of that is a consequence of him showing that he can handle the zone the way he'd like and pitchers are pitching him a little more carefully," Renteria said. "In terms of pitches on the fringes, he just knows what he wants to do with a pitch and I think it allows him to lay off particular pitches.
"He's been able to eliminate certain areas of the zone or at least command certain areas of the zone that he might have had problems with in the past. And I think he's basically not panicking in those situations anymore."
With the arrival of highly thought of offensive prospects like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant on the horizon, many have wondered if a veteran offensive presence would be necessary to ensure that the kids wouldn't be looked at as saviors and to ease the pressure that would inevitably be placed on them. Is it possible that Rizzo's emergence as an offensive force has lightened any sense of urgency to acquire a veteran bat?
"There are a couple guys in here that continue to grow into those roles," Renteria said. "I think that the successes that they have obviously give them more and more confidence to be able to carry that persona to be able to communicate with young players when they come up. If they have successes they have something to lean on and to base their ability and give them credibility when they want to talk to younger players about certain things as the season progresses."
While Rizzo and Starlin Castro had Alfonso Soriano to look up to early in their careers, the fact is that everyone knew Soriano wasn't a part of the team's long-term plans. There were no expectations that Soriano would be around when the Cubs' next window of contention arrived. Rizzo and Castro, on the other hand, were largely trumpeted as two big pieces of the puzzle. So when the duo struggled last season, there was no one to shield them from the inevitable fan and media criticism. Whether it was fair or not, they were going to face a barrage of questions about whether they'd actually be able to be a part of the core of a successful Cubs team.
But it appears they were able to weather the storm, relying on the support of their teammates, veteran or not.
"They lean on each other, quite frankly," Renteria said. "And it won't be any different for these young men, whenever they show up."