Anthony Rizzo’s Performance in High-Leverage At-Bats is Further Evidence of His Ridiculousness

By now, I’m sure you’ve both read my outstanding analysis of Anthony Rizzo’s unadulterated domination of left-handed pitching. But as riveting and expansive as it was, something I heard recently set me on a course to discover more. So, like the Christopher Columbus of statistics, I went in search of new ways to quantify just how awesome the Cubs first baseman has been this season.

While appearing on the Spiegel and Goff show on Tuesday, Joe Maddon praised Rizzo’s two-strike approach. Rizzo, his skipper said, isn’t afraid or ashamed of choking up and shortening his swing in order to make contact and make things happen. Sounds easy enough, but hitting with two strikes is not something many players do well.

On the whole, MLB hitters are carrying a triple-slash line of .175/.241/.265 when they’re faced with two-strike counts. Rizzo, however, is hitting .217/.270/.293 in those same situations. Yes, the drop-off from his overall line is appreciable, but the fact remains that he’s significantly better than average.

So that’s nice and all, but as far as statistical examples go, it doesn’t exactly set Rizzo up as the nonpareil I teased in the headline. In fact, one might go so far as to label it ersatz. Then again, I consider myself the ne plus ultra when it comes to performing analysis with only half of my rear end.

But two-strike hitting is only part of the picture here. After all, you can be down in the count at any point during the game, but it’s what you do in high-leverage situations in general that better defines you. Yes, folks, there is such a thing as clutch hitting, and there isn’t a better hitter in baseball than Anthony Rizzo when it comes to that.

I won’t go into the various details involving the calculation and application of Leverage Index here, but FanGraphs has a nice explanation if you’d like to learn more. In a nutshell, LI is an attempt to quantify the pressure at various points in a ballgame, since some situations have greater bearing on the outcome of a game than others.

If you’re a regular Cubs radio listener, think of it this way: when you hear, “You know, Ron, you get the feeling that this could be a real turning point,” followed by, “I agree, Pat,” that is probably a good sign that you’re involved in a high-leverage situation. Then again, if every Pat Hughes turning point was indeed an indicator of leverage, the game would be on the line constantly.

In any case, I wanted to look a little more closely at how Anthony Rizzo has performed in the various leverage situations (low, medium, and high), with particular emphasis on OBP. My thinking here is that situational hitting is about more than just getting an actual hit or driving in a run, it’s about getting on base and keeping the inning going in whatever way you can.

To that end, Rizzo is really showing out so far in 2015. While he’s been only mediocre in low-leverage situations, reaching base at a .327 clip (98th in MLB), the numbers get better as the pressure is dialed up. In medium-leverage situations, Rizzo is 2nd in baseball with a .516 OBP (Bryce Harper is at .559).

And when we turn the heat up even higher, Rizzo’s performance increases as well. In high-leverage plate appearances, he is carrying a .680 OBP, a figure that has him looking down on the rest of the league. He’s walking at a 25% rate and has yet to strike out when he steps to the plate at a turning point.

What’s more, Rizzo leads the league in high-leverage OPS with an almost unthinkable 1.743 that easily outstrips Josh Donaldson (1.564), Mike Trout (1.545), and Paul Goldschmidt (1.515). Even with a small sample size, I feel pretty confident in saying that that is really good. I’m willing to bet Ron Coomer would agree with me too.

In any sport, you want your stars to shine brightest when their team most needs them. I remember once, several years ago, arguing with a friend who claimed that Reggie Miller wasn’t very good because he score too many of his points in the 4th quarter. That actually struck me as a pretty ironclad argument in favor of how good he was, but what do I know.

We really started to see Rizzo emerge as a leader last year after having been sort of forced into the role by the talent vacuum in which he had been forced to perform. But rather than wilt under the increased expectations, he was able to rise and develop into a superb hitter. And from the looks of it, he’s still getting better.

If Rizzo truly does elevate his play to match the situation, just think of what he’ll be able to do when he finally gets the chance to play meaningful games down the stretch and in the postseason.


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