All Star LaHair vs. Top Prospect Rizzo: Who’s Best On First and the Stats That Will Shock You


In a roller coaster season loaded with ups, dows, low points and especially downs, it’s never easy to go back to the highs of the season and bask in the glowing celebration of being a Cubs fan.

When I say glowing celebration, I mostly mean stressed out, nervous and irate. Being a Cubs fan is medically confirmed to be bad for your health.

While my doctor advises me to never watch baseball again, it’s still easy to see through the gloom and pick out some favorite moments of this season. The Anthony Rizzo call up, Paul Maholm being dominant despite being such a low profile character, Darwin Barney‘s year long defensive clinic at second base, Bryan LaHair and Starlin Castro being named All-Stars, Jeff Samardzija‘s continuing development as the Cubs’ future ace, Tony Campana‘s superman slide-dive into third base to avoid a tag vs the Marlins… I could go on for hours, folks.

And while there are a collection of names in that list of highlights, most of which are very much locked in to their starting positions, there are 2 names that stand out in direct contrast to one and other:

Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair.

LaHair was arguably the Cubs’ best hitter pre All-Star break and lead the team in most offensive categories for a long time. LaHair is a career journeyman who has spent a lot of time in the minors playing all sorts of positions (but notably recognized for his efforts in the OF and 1B). He’s no rookie on how to play effective baseball.

His strong early season performance came as a shock to many as he had never really made waves with… well…. anyone before being given a shot in spring training and earning his place in the Cubs’ starting lineup. He showed up, took care of business, and was the go to guy at first.

This could have largely been due to the fact that Bryan LaHair knew that Cubs’ top prospect Anthony Rizzo was waiting in the wings.

It was essentially understood that LaHair was just “keeping Rizzo’s job warm” for him while he finished out his dominating AAA career campaign, blasting away home runs and making pitchers feel about as useless as a door without hinges. There’s never been a doubt that Rizzo is the superior hitter out of the two players…

But now that the two men have almost equal playing time for the 2012 Cubs, there’s some parallels that can be drawn between the two: namely who is more dominant while playing the number three position.

Lets break down the numbers. LaHair racked up 55 total games on first, 52 of which he was listed as starting. These 55 games total up to be 461.1 innings of work with 17 A (assists) only 3 errors. He’s had 455 CH (chances) and accumulated 435 PO (put outs) in the process – which leads to a very healthy .993 Fld%. Great numbers really.

LaHair would have continued to play first base, however Rizzo was called up late June and assumed the role. His numbers break down very similarly:

Rizzo has played 59 total games for the 2012 Cubs so far, all of which he’s started. This totals out to 509.2 innings of work, which is slightly more that LaHair has accumulated, but still close enough to the same totals to be held in similar light for a comparative argument’s sake. Rizzo’s stat line follows with 36 A, 3 E with 465 PO in 504 CH. A little bit of simple math and Rizzo is packing a .994 Fld%.

Huh…. well fancy that. Both players have almost identical defensive metrics on first base – literally being separated by .001 Fld%. This must be a wrap then right? Both players are equally skilled on the bag.

While this set of stats would indicate that, we already know that Rizzo is a superior player. How is this possible? How can Rizzo be a better player when he and LaHair have almost the exact same fielding metrics? Better yet, if you knew the answer to the question already, why are you reading this article?!

As many sabermetrics fans know, there’s always a deeper stat to look in to. We can never settle on just basic metrics, because that wouldn’t satisfy our desperate thirst for over analysis. (But seriously, in this case, advanced metrics are really important!)

Before I dive into this further, I’ll explain what kind of stats I’m looking at. Firstly, sabermetric stats are VERY abstract. They’re often based on a value that is given to a player because of his performance, not on the performance itself. They may be based on concrete things that have happened, but can be rounded out and averaged to per 1000 innings played, or per X amount of AB for example. These stats look at the “what if” by giving an abstract value to the “what is”. The WAR stat is a good example: Wins Over Replacement can’t really be calculated to a tangible figure, but the number of wins said player is worth over his replacement can be quantified and observed, then used for making predictions. 

I’ll try to keep this simple.

The name of the game with these two players is “Run Value” as the stats we’ll be looking at give both players a value based on the number of runs their worth on average. Remember, this is an abstract concept. They’re not physically worth said amount of runs.

Still with me? Ok. Lets continue:

Rizzo worked out a 5 Rtot (zone total runs fielding above average) which means he was worth 5 runs above the average based on the plays he’s made at first base. His strong play and ability to reach poorly thrown balls all add value to this stat, which is inherently based at zero when you first hit the field.

LaHair’s Rtot doesn’t hold up quite as well, as he’s worth -6 runs in this stat category. This means that LaHair’s ability to make plays simply isn’t the the same quality as Rizzo’s…. or anyone else in the league.

It doesn’t stop there: going on the basis that both players would play 1250 innings in 2012 for the Cubs (named Rtot/yr), Rizzo is worth 11 runs above average, while LaHair is worth -15 runs. (this stat is just the previous stat amplified in order to create a stronger case from a larger theoretical sample)

This means that while both players may have similar basic fielding stats, the edge most definitely belongs to Anthony Rizzo. Not only does this indicate that LaHair is no match for Rizzo, it shows that Rizzo is a monster defensively.

How can this be though? How can both players post such similar stat lines, yet have such a strong differential when it comes to other stats? Aren’t they all based on making plays?

While this is all true, the fact of the matter is LaHair may have had easier plays to make while on first which boosted is basic fielding stats. This, along with a lot of other sabermetric stats, don’t take into account other fielder’s errors and other factors that could turn this column into a PhD thesis etc. The advanced metric stats are there to put a number on something we all already see: Anthony Rizzo is simply a better first baseman.

The reality is that when you take into account the fact that Rizzo is 7 years younger and a better power hitter than LaHair, and you wont even need to look at defensive metrics to pick who you’d like on first base. But its worth exploring how both men can have such similar numbers yet one player can be significantly better than the other.

But if you have to call a winner: Rizzo takes the W by judges decision. A close fight with some mild David v Goliath undertones.

While Rizzo will undoubtedly progress to be the face of the franchise along with Starlin Castro, there is still hope for LaHair yet. Its hard to really hate on the guy as he was very good for a solid portion of the season, but his job was simply cannibalized by a younger, better player.

Just another day in the world of a professional baseball player.

Want more? You can always follow me on twitter @Denny_CubsCrib for Cubs analysis, news, humor and updates.