Death, taxes, and Anthony Rizzo posting stellar numbers are things Cubs fans have learned to bank on over the last handful of seasons. Always known for his remarkably consistent offensive production, Rizzo was able avoid his typical slow start this season and strung together his best first half since 2016.
It was during that 2016 season, one you might remember for other reasons, that Rizzo cemented himself firmly in the National League MVP conversation by posting a 164 wRC+ through the All-Star break. That helped him finish the regular season with a .928 OPS and kept alive his streak of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI.
Despite logging only 25 home runs last year, Rizzo stayed the course as an elite run producer, driving in 101 men and garnering at least one MVP vote for the fifth straight season. Halfway through the 2019 campaign, at least according to the break, Rizzo is well on his way to making that six consecutive seasons, an effort the Cubs desperately needed to stay afloat in the NL Central.
In 86 games, the lefty slugger has slashed .272/.384/.519/.903 with a .247 ISO and 135 wRC+ (35% better than league average). Dating back to his MVP-caliber season of 2016, that is Rizzo’s best first half production by wRC+, edging out his 2017 start by three points. Among qualified first baseman, his 135 mark ranks ninth while his 2.1 fWAR ties him with Daniel Vogelbach (former Cub alert) for seventh.
Cutting through all the factors, Rizzo’s success this season can be traced back to one simple attribute: He’s hitting the ball harder than ever. Dating back to 2015, Rizzo had never posted a hard contact rate higher than 35.6% in the first half. That, of course, came in 2016 when he mashed 21 long balls and drove in 63 prior to the All-Star break.
In 2019, however, that number has jumped to 40.5%, which would set a new career-best for Rizzo if it holds. Perhaps as one would expect, Rizzo’s average exit velocity is near a career mark as well, sitting at 89.9 mph for the season. That would tie his previous career-best, while his 9.5% barrel rate would become a new high-water mark.
Already with 25 barrels on the season, Rizzo ranks 42nd in the majors in that category. And this comes after managing only 32 barrels out of roughly twice as many batted balls last year. So, he’s hitting the ball harder and has 19 home runs to show for it at the break, that’s pretty good. However, Rizzo failed to hit a home run in his last 20 games while slugging .362 in the process.
Since June 16, Rizzo stopped hitting the ball in the air (24.1%) as he did his best Albert Almora Jr. impression by putting everything on the ground (51.9% ground ball rate). Combine that with a precipitous drop in hard contact and you have the reason for Rizzo’s home run drought. Nevertheless, he contributed six doubles and a triple to the Cubs’ cause over the last three weeks while pacing the team with a healthy 13.4% walk rate.
Even with his league-average finish to the first half, Rizzo remained a huge part of the Cubs’ offensive success, however limited that might have been. Much of Chicago’s offensive struggles stemmed not from a lack of production with men in scoring position, but an inability to create those situations in the first place.
Rizzo has made the most of the 85 plate appearances he’s gotten with men in scoring position, largely a product of him batting third in the lineup. In that sample, he posted a .903 OPS that was identical to his overall first half mark while generating a 50% hard contact rate, which was the best on the roster.
The second half of the season is not going to be any easier for a Cubs team only four games over .500 with a slim half-game lead in the NL Central. Too many missed opportunities have kept the division race tight despite All-Star performances from Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, and Kris Bryant.
Beginning at Wrigley later this week, the Cubs’ offense will continue turning to Rizzo and others for the majority of its production. Unlike last season, however, Rizzo doesn’t have a big hole to dig out of at the plate. Instead, he’s armed with the confidence of a strong first half and the motivation to will his team to their fifth straight postseason.