Burning Questions: Is Anthony Rizzo an elite first baseman?
One thing we'll strive to do here on Burning Questions is highlight a guy we feel is due for a breakout and try to value him appropriately, both at his position and in the entire fantasy baseball universe. We'll take our first crack at that today with Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
When the Cubs hired Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to lead the front office, it was almost as if they had unofficially signed Rizzo along with them. Two months after bringing in Epstein and Hoyer, the pair that had originally drafted Rizzo with the Red Sox, the Cubs acquired Rizzo from the Padres for Andrew Cashner. Of course, Rizzo was only in San Diego after Epstein, still with the Red Sox, and Hoyer, then the Padres general manager, agreed to the blockbuster deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston. You almost get the feeling that if Epstein and Hoyer ever made the transition to basketball, they'd find a way to get Rizzo as their starting two guard.
Rizzo started the year at Triple-A Iowa, but quickly showed the franchise he had nothing left to prove in the minors. In 70 games with the I-Cubs, Rizzo hit .342/.405/.696 with 23 homers, 18 doubles and 62 RBI. Despite spending just half the year in the minors, Rizzo hit the fifth most homers in the entire Pacific Coast League.
When the Cubs promoted him at the end of June, he picked up right where he left off in Des Moines. Ten games into his Cubs career, Rizzo had four homers and nine RBI. While it would have been unrealistic for him to continue that Ruthian pace, his hot start certainly proved to be more of a harbinger of things to come than Bryan LaHair's at the beginning of the 2012 season. Rizzo would go on to hit .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers and 48 RBI in 337 at-bats, erasing the terrible memories from his nightmarish 50-game stint in the majors with the Padres in 2011. Over the course of a 600 at-bat season, those numbers extrapolated to 27 homers and 85 RBI, which would have been good for seventh in homers and 11th in RBI among all first basemen.
Nearly all fantasy owners count on getting strong power production out of their first baseman. It's the position of Pujols and Fielder, of Konerko and Encarnacion, of Votto and Teixeira. Rizzo is definitely part of the future at the position, but where does he slot among all those mashers in 2013?
I feel pretty safe saying that the Rizzo we saw in the majors with the Padres two years ago was an anomaly. And his 2012 performance isn't the only piece of evidence to assuage any fears we might have. Before the Padres called him up to the majors in 2011, he hit .331/.404/.652 with 26 homers, 34 doubles and 101 RBI in 93 games with Triple-A Tucson. Compared with everything else he has done as a professional, that 50-game downturn is just a blip on the radar. Leaving behind his minor league stats, if we take a look at his advanced stats with the Cubs last year, we find a guy who compared favorably to his competition, despite not turning 23 until last August.
Rizzo's line-drive rate was 24.4 percent, fourth best among all first basemen. His infield-fly-ball rate of 7.2 percent was lower than all but seven of his counterparts, and the only two with anywhere near his power sitting below eight percent were Paul Goldschmidt and Corey Hart. Those two stats taken together show a precocious ability to square up major league pitching.
Rizzo's 16.8-percent strikeout rate compares favorably with the rest of the position. It's not on the level of Pujols or Fielder, but it was better than rates accumulated by Justin Morneau, Freddie Freeman and Allen Craig. His .349 wOBA, an ingenious stat that appropriately weighs everything a player can do on offense, was better than that of Adam Dunn, Adrian Gonzalez, Teixeira, Freeman and Morneau. This seems like a good time to remind you that we're talking about a guy who turned 23 during last season and was getting his first significant playing time in the majors.
Wrigley Field favored hitters slightly according to park factors, but that was not at all visible in Rizzo's success. He hit .280/.338/.451 with seven homers at home, and .290/.347/.477 with eight homers on the road. It would be reasonable to expect him to pick up the slack at Wrigley this year.
The one place Rizzo did not measure up with his fellow first basemen was in isolated slugging. His .178 ISO was 17th among all first basemen.
So after considering all these numbers, where do we rank Rizzo? The top tier of first basemen includes Pujols, Votto and Fielder, all of whom are in the top tier of players regardless of position. For me, the next tier is huge, and includes, in order, Goldschmidt, Gonzalez, Freeman, Encarnacion, Butler, Rizzo and Trumbo. I think he's ready to be a fantasy starter from Opening Day on this year. He also could be a relative bargain. Within the entire universe of fantasy baseball players, I have Rizzo just outside the top 50 to start the season.