January 13, 2015
Tale of the Tape
Victor Martinez vs. Anthony Rizzo
Last week, I started the Tale of the Tape series with a pair of backstops, pitting Salvador Perez against Russell Martin. As we move on to first base this week, it appears we have another very close battle on our hands. This time around we’re presented with two players coming off the best performances of their lives. For one of them, it may have been the first great year in a string of many. For the other, it may have been the last great year in a tremendous career. It’s Anthony Rizzo vs. Victor Martinez. Let’s get started.
We start off with a category in which the winner is fairly straightforward. Obviously, average is always a tough stat to predict given the fluky nature of performance on balls in play. With that being said, Martinez has been consistently great in this area. Over his career, he’s played in at least 100 games nine times, and has put up an AVG over .300 in eight of those seasons. Rizzo, on the other hand, has been up-and-down over his short career. After stumbling to a .233 mark in 2013, he bounced back to .286 a year ago, mostly due to his BABIP coming back up to a more normal level. I still feel good about Rizzo’s future as a .280-plus batting-average player, but Martinez is too strong to overcome in 2015.
Though the winner in AVG didn’t require too much critical thinking, OBP throws in a bit more of a wrinkle. While Rizzo will likely get fewer hits, he should make up at least some of that ground through free passes. His walk rate has been steadily climbing through his MLB career, culminating in a 12 percent clip in 2014, and he’s added close to 100 points from his AVG to his OBP year after year. Martinez is certainly no Adam Jones when it comes to walks, but he’s merely good rather than very good-to-great. This comes down to how close Martinez can stay to the .335 AVG he put up a year ago. If he can stay around .320, which is where I see him finishing, then he should edge out Rizzo in OBP.
Winner: Martinez, slightly
When drafting a first baseman, there’s a good chance you’re looking for power. As a group, the position finished with the most homers in the game last year with 83 more long balls than left fielders. Rizzo and Martinez were both large contributors to this, with each knocking 32 balls over the fence. The Cubs first baseman has been increasing his total with each new season in the majors, while Martinez’s 32 was seven more than he had ever hit prior to 2014. Looking forward to 2015, Rizzo looks like a better bet to keep it going. On top of increasing his home run total every year, he’s also seen incremental improvement in ISO, while also consistently besting Martinez in average fly ball distance. This added to his reputation as a power hitter throughout his minor-league career gives him the edge in this category.
Between the two of them in 2014, Martinez came out ahead by a fair margin, knocking in 103 runs to Rizzo’s 78. A lot of that can be attributed to playing in a much deeper lineup, and that advantage should carry into 2015. The top of Detroit’s lineup will see plenty of base runners, with guys like Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, and (probably) Anthony Gose hitting ahead of Martinez. Rizzo, on the other hand, will have to rely on production from Starlin Castro, a smorgasbord of leadoff hitters like Chris Coghlan, Chris Denorfia, and the pitcher’s spot to give him RBI opportunities. So, while Rizzo is a better bet for extra base hits and would have the advantage with equivalent lineups, the talent that surrounds Martinez gives him the category.
Once again, we’re dealing with a stat that will likely come down to what kind of talent each player has neighboring them. However, while Martinez has a clear edge in who is hitting ahead of him, the group of players batting behind both of these players is much more interesting. Right now, the Tigers should have the edge again, with Yoenis Cespedes, Nick Castellanos, and J.D. Martinez trying to knock in V-Mart. The Cubs, though, should have some interesting names here. Luis Valbuena and Miguel Montero could be solid contributors here, but the real interest comes in young players. Jorge Soler flashed huge potential in his first taste of the majors, and should hit right behind Rizzo. There is also the massive bat that Javier Baez could carry, as well as the presence of Kris Bryant that should come early in the season. While Martinez gets the edge to start the year, by the end of the season I would be far from surprised if Rizzo finished with the higher total.
Winner: Rizzo, slightly
For the second week in a row, we have a thrilling battle for the stolen base crown. As was the case for the catchers, you’re not going to be taking either guy with this category in mind. I would be downright shocked if the players combined for double-digit steals next year. With that being said, Rizzo has the clear edge. He’s at least swiped multiple bases in every year of his career. Martinez stole three bags last season, but that was his first multi-steal year of his career.
The good thing about first basemen is that there isn’t going to be a whole lot of wear and tear on someone’s body at this position. That doesn’t mean injuries won’t happen, obviously, but there is less risk here than at most positions. Still, both Rizzo and Martinez have shown impressive durability in their careers. Rizzo has never missed major time in his professional career due to injury. Martinez’s history isn’t quite as clean, but he’s stayed off the disabled list since he missed the entire 2012 season after knee surgery. In playing in the National League, Rizzo finds himself at a disadvantage for not being able to get time off the field by vulture of the DH position. Martinez, though, will play the majority of his games at DH. However, that is outweighed by the fact that Martinez is 36 years old, while Rizzo is just 25. That huge age difference, and the past knee troubles for Martinez, give Rizzo the edge.
Assuming both players can remain healthy through the season, there is very little reason to worry about playing time for either guy. Rizzo had shown some platoon splits early in his career, but he rectified that in 2014 with a .928 OPS against southpaws, so he should get the majority of the at-bats regardless of who is on the mound. There is some concern for Martinez due to his age, though. It is possible that the Tigers will give him some off days through the season to increase his chances of staying fresh through a season in which the Tigers hope to make another run to the World Series. On the other hand, the Cubs are facing the highest expectations they’ve had in quite some time, giving them extra motivation to keep their best hitter in the lineup every day.
Winner: Rizzo, slightly
I think the answer to this one is fairly obvious. Any time we’re talking about a 25-year-old vs. a 36-year-old, the higher ceiling likely belongs to the youngster. While he had the best year of his career in 2014, there is still room for Rizzo to grow. While his strikeout rate isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, if he can cut a few percentage points off that total, he can take the next step and become one of the truly elite hitters in the league. Martinez, on the other hand, just had what will likely be the best year of his career. There’s very little room for him to improve.
Once again, the results are damn near too close to call. Looking just at who won each category, Rizzo comes out ahead with a 6-3 win. However, his victory in stolen bases is largely meaningless, and the wins in playing time and runs could have gone either way. Ultimately, it comes down to your preference between the safe bet and high ceiling. Victor Martinez is going to give you solid production, even when he falls off from his insane 2014. Rizzo gets the edge for me, though. Even in a safe projection for the Cubs first baseman, he finishes just slightly behind Martinez, and the potential for him to take the next step in his game makes him the more enticing target for your 2015 fantasy leagues.
And the winner is… Anthony Rizzo.
Matt Collins is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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