The new first baseman [2021 Season Review]

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In a surprise trade deadline move, the Yankees acquired Anthony Rizzo from the Cubs in exchange for prospects Alex Vizcaíno and Kevin Alcántara. The Yankees were actively pursuing Trevor Story, but turned to Rizzo once the Rockies decided to keep their shortstop. Luke Voit, the incumbent first baseman, was hurt at the time of the deal but it didn’t seem like he had a weak hold on his job, either (though Voit was involved in trade rumors himself). The Yankees gave Rizzo the gig and let him run with it.

Ultimately, the need for left-handed lineup balance and a low-strikeout hitter made Rizzo a good fit, even if it made for perplexing handling of Voit the rest of the season (a subject to revisit once we publish Voit’s season review). We may see more of Rizzo in pinstripes depending on how free agency goes, but for now, let’s reflect on his second half stint in the Bronx.

Good, but not great at the plate

Post trade, Rizzo batted .249/.340/.428 (113 wRC+) in 200 plate appearances with the Yankees, including 8 home runs and a 14 percent strikeout rate. His lefty bat and propensity to make contact added a different dimension to the Bombers’ lineup, although one could qualify his hitting in New York as somewhat disappointing.

There was an expectation that the move from Wrigley Field to Yankee Stadium would boost Rizzo’s power output. Granted, Wrigley can also be a hitters’ dream, but Yankee Stadium is a left-handed hitters’ heaven. While Rizzo’s cited numbers with the Yankees weren’t bad by any stretch, they also didn’t deviate much from what he did for Chicago pre-acquisition (.248/.346/.446, 112 wRC+). That, in itself, is where some disappointment lies.

For what it’s worth, Statcast’s xHR metric estimated 32 homers for Rizzo with Yankee Stadium as his home park for all of 2021. He hit 23 total, and his home run per plate appearance rate hardly budged post trade (26 with Cubs, 25 with Yankees). Oh well.

At the outset, it looked like Rizzo would breathe life into the lineup. He went 8-for-20 with three homers in his first six games with the Yankees, but didn’t do much thereafter. He also missed some time due to COVID, starting just a few days after that hot stretch, and never really got going again (101 wRC+ post-injured list activation). As whole, Rizzo was good, but I can’t help but think the Yankees were anticipating more.

Is he done as an elite bat?

We’re now two seasons removed from Rizzo’s last elite offensive campaign (2019, 140 wRC+), which makes it look like the first baseman’s decline-phase is in full swing. And yet, it’s interesting to note that he set career-highs in average exit velocity (90.1, tied with 2018) and hard hit percentage (41.4). Those seemingly would indicate some life remaining in his bat. However, there is one big difference compared to his prime, and it’s the way opposing defenses line up against him.

SeasonPAShifts%wOBA – No ShiftwOBA – Shift
201664638860.10.4290.366
201767840760.00.4350.342
201864540562.80.3440.364
201960542069.40.3830.388
202023819983.60.2220.348
202157443876.30.3350.340

Rizzo started seeing more shifts in 2019, but has witnessed a dramatic increase since then. It’s possible that this has affected his approach at the plate, though I don’t know how to illustrate that with numbers. There aren’t any significant changes in his batted ball profile, he still hits the ball hard, and his contact rates remain excellent. Why, then, has he seen so many more shifts than before? There must be something justifying it, and if his overall numbers have declined, it seems plausible that the shift is doing part of the damage.

Still, it’s not like Rizzo fares worse against the shift, per wOBA. He hasn’t since 2017, at least. However, his wOBA has declined in non-shifts, even if he’s seeing fewer of them. Again, I don’t know what to pinpoint that on statistically. Maybe it really is just as simple as age-related decline. He’s still a good hitter at least, but the further away we get from those elite seasons, the less likely those return.

It was nice to watch good first base defense

Here’s where Rizzo really shined in New York. The Yankees tried a number of guys at first base before the trade because Luke Voit (who’s not a good defender anyway) had multiple injured list stints. These players ranged from players who are inexperienced at the position (Jay Bruce, DJ LeMahieu) and guys who just didn’t cut it offensively or defensively (Mike Ford, Chris Gittens).

As great as Voit has been offensively over the past few years, his defense was a liability at first base. Voit recorded -20 OAA since 2018 and was in the 4th percentile of the metric last season, whereas Rizzo was in the 92nd percentile of OAA this season. The guy was a vacuum over at first base.

We’ve been spoiled by good defense at first base before. Mark Teixeira and Tino Martinez were terrific and cover the vast majority of my fandom. And yet, I somehow forgot how nice it is to have a good glove at first base. Rizzo reinforced that.

Sure, first base is a position you can hide a lesser defender, or have as someone’s secondary position in case of need. At the same time, it’s better to have good defenders everywhere if possible, and I think whether or not the Yankees do bring back Rizzo next season, they will try to balance offense and defense at the position.

What’s next?

Rizzo is a free agent. He reportedly turned down a five-year, $70 million from the Cubs in March, but I’m not so sure he can get that much in free agency now. If he had a pre-2020 quality Anthony Rizzo season, sure. But now, Rizzo has hit .240/.343/.432 (109 wRC+) in 819 plate appearances since he turned 30. That’s not ideal for a first baseman, even for one as good defensively as Rizzo is.

I think the Yankees should and will be in discussions to bring back Rizzo. There are other positions that are of greater need, like shortstop, but it’s evident that the club is ready to move on from Voit. While Rizzo won’t be the best first baseman available (Freddie Freeman), he could be the best budget-friendly option. A two or three year contract seems reasonable considering his age and recent performance.

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9 Comments

  1. Troy

    Keep Voit. Too many needs to play a declining league average 1B

  2. Terry from LA

    Rizzo is better than Belt. I’d rather have Freddie!

    • Mike T

      Fix or was a good clubhouse member, a reliable lefty bat and defensive very reliable…we’d be crazy to let him go… trade or release Voit…

  3. H. Avis

    Rizzo would be a good stopgap. Three year deal, max.

  4. Jim Graber

    There’s a lot to like about Rizzo. I’d love to have him back at 3/45

  5. Given his ability to make contact and hit the ball hard, I think Rizzo will age well. Give him 3 years and 45 million. We need lefty contact hitters and good defenders.

  6. Jeff

    Yankees should move on, he’s bad against righties. I’d rather take a crack at Brandon Belt. (Assuming Freddie resigns)

    • Belt is too injury-prone.

    • Bad against righties? Any number of good reasons to pass on Rizzo, but that’s not one of them. Brandon Belt over nearly the same number of ABs has about the same career split as Rizzo.

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