Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has a plate approach that has faded from the game. One where you choke up, focusing on contact with two strikes.
Growing up around the game, ‘choke and poke’ was very much a common expression. Choke up, shorten your stoke and make contact – especially when down in the count. It makes sense. Cut down on strikeouts and you never know what might happen.
But as I’ve grown older, this seems to be embraced by fewer and fewer hitters. We live in the age of the long-ball, as evidenced by ever-rising home run totals. But one guy, known as a power hitter at a position traditionally dominated by power hitters, stands apart: Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
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A recent MLB.com article singled out Rizzo as one of the ‘best pure hitters’ in the National League Central. It’s hard to envision anyone else on the Cubs roster earning such a designation really, with the possible exception of someone like Kyle Schwarber. But at the end of the day, Rizzo has demonstrated this skillset year in and year out for the better part of a decade now.
"“I just hate striking out,” Rizzo told MLB.com last season. “I think the most embarrassing thing you can do as a hitter, for me, is you walk back to the dugout. There’s nothing good that can come when you swing and miss.”"
Last season, Rizzo slashed .293/.405/.530 – culminating in the second-highest OPS of his big league career. He’s a near-lock for an OBP around the .400 mark at this point which could, at least in theory, help him age more gracefully than other slugging first basemen.
Since the start of the 2016 campaign, the three-time All-Star has struck out just 364 times while drawing 306 base-on-balls. Rizzo adapts his approach to the situation at hand. If the Cubs need a big knock in the gap, he’s more than capable of driving a ball off the ivy-covered walls at Wrigley. Move a baserunner from second to third? He’ll make sure he hits the ball on the ground to the right side. No matter what, he’s always the guy you want at the plate.
In short, Rizzo takes what you give him. If you go down 3-0 on him, it’s almost a guarantee he’s getting on base (evidenced by his career .910 OBP in such situations). Last season, with two strikes, he slashed .240/.320/.362. Now, that might not sound like anything impressive, but lats season, the league average slash line came in at .252/.323/.435.
What does that tell us? Even with his back against the wall, Rizzo is, at worst, a league average hitter. The lower slugging percentage is just further evidence that he’s not looking to punish mistakes, but work with what he’s got and focus on a contact-oriented approach, something that’s lost on most hitters today.
We don’t know what the future holds for this generation’s Mr. Cub or even if he’ll finish his career with Chicago. But one thing is for sure: there are few hitters in the game today capable of changing the complexion of an inning in as many ways as Anthony Rizzo.