Anthony Rizzo is hitting just .257 this year with a .242 BABIP. A fantasy-league mate of mine proclaimed “Rizzo sucks this year” after a recent trade. However, the only thing I can see that’s changed is his BABIP. He’s on pace for 106 RBI and 95 runs after totaling 109 RBI and 94 runs last season. His ISO is an identical .252. For all intents and purposes, he’s the same hitter, except he’s missing some hits. My league-mate chalked this up to “he’s getting shifted more” or “he’s worse hitting against the shift.”
One of those two things is correct. Rizzo has faced a shift in 85.7% of his plate appearances this year, which isn’t different from the 85.5% he faced last season. Rizzo is, however, hitting only .247 on balls in play when facing the shift (.214 when not shifted) this year. This is a 54-point swing in BABIP from a year ago (.301 while shifted; .359 when not shifted). This amounts to 13 missing hits thus far this year against the shift (and six more when not shifted). For the purposes of this article I want to focus on the missing hits against the shift.
What we have here is the symptom of something that’s going on when Rizzo is hitting this year that wasn’t happening as much last year, so I started sniffing around for other major changes in the Rizzo data. One thing that popped into my head was that the Cubs offense, especically the top of the order, has been getting on base much less this year than last year. That led me to thinking about what the defense looks like when there are runners on base versus when the bases are empty.
For a reference point, this is a typical shift against Rizzo with no one on base:
With only a runner on first base, the shift is the same, but with the obvious addition of the 1B holding the runner on.
In 2016 Rizzo batted with runners on base in ~55% of his plate appearances and ~32% of the time with runners in scoring position. In 2017 those numbers have dropped to ~45% and ~24%.
While I don’t have Rizzo-specific defensive placements for all his batted balls in play, I did compare his spray charts from last year and this year and noticed two very empty spots.
The first spot is just behind the second-base bag, where the SS typically lines up in the over-shift against Rizzo. In 102 games this year, Rizzo has yet to collect a hit to this part of the field, while he had six hits within this area of the field last year and a few more just behind it to the opposite-field side. Using the FG splits tool we can see Rizzo has an .054 AVG in this area of the field this year vs. .333 from a year ago.
The second empty spot is where you’d find line drives to the opposite field falling in before the left fielder. This led me to look into Rizzo’s batted-ball distribution to the pull side and opposite-field side for both ground balls and line drives. As you’ll see, Rizzo is going to the opposite field ~5% less on his ground balls, and non-oppo GBs turn into outs more frequently for Rizzo due to the shift.
Rizzo is hitting .140 this year on ground balls to the left or up the middle, against a .345 mark from a year ago. This accounts for eight of his 13 missing hits. Another three hits are accounted for from luck against the shift on the pull side. The remaining two missing hits are from a slight change in batted-ball distribution on line drives to the opposite field. At the end of the day, I don’t think anything has changed with Rizzo outside normal variance in various batted-ball outcomes.