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You’ll have to excuse Chicagoans if they seem a bit morose at the moment. We’re stuck in that time of year when 30 degree weather elicits comments about how it really isn’t that bad out. This happens when you live in a city that regularly gets so cold that it leads people to annually conduct simple science experiments and post the video on Facebook. For sports fans, it only gets worse, with our football team coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory and the Bulls and Blackhawks each losing star players (Derrick Rose and Patrick Kane) to (likely) season-ending injuries.

No, things aren’t looking up in Chicago right now, but that can change quickly around here. This is a place that’s often referred to as the greatest summer city in the country, and with busy offseasons on both sides of town the baseball teams are planning on adding to that greatness. Earlier, I discussed why the White Sox might be better than the 78 wins PECOTA has projected for them; there’s no doubt that Sox fans are expecting more out of their team. But even with Rick Hahn making more moves than any GM this side of A.J. Preller, the focus is once again on the North Siders.

The Cubs will be playing in a renovated Wrigley (at some point) and the product on the field should have a new look about it as well. The biggest difference is quite simple: the big-league club heads into the season expected to win its fair share of games for the first time in at least a half-decade. PECOTA has the Cubs pegged for 83 wins, while many fans (and Las Vegas) are even more bullish about their prospects for the 2015 season. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the addition of Jon Lester (and to a lesser degree, Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler). The Cubs also have the top farm system in all of baseball, with one of the best prospects in the game, Kris Bryant, knocking on the door.

But it’s not just the new faces and prospects that are key to the Cubs success in 2015. If this team is finally going to get back to the playoffs, they’ll need a lot of things to go right, many things to change, and one thing in particular to stay the same: Anthony Rizzo. After an impressive Cubs debut in 2012, Rizzo struggled the next season, only to break out in 2014 and assert himself as one of the top offensive forces in the game.

The fact is, outside of his batting average (and BABIP), the basic numbers say that Rizzo wasn’t much different from 2013. Just ignoring his slash line, Rizzo looks like a young player who is just improving as the years go by.

YEAR

K%

BB%

ISO

BABIP

2012

16.8

7.3

.178

.310

2013

18.4

11.0

.186

.258

2014

18.8

11.9

.240

.311

Of course, it’s the 2013 BABIP that stands out. Combine positive regression there with a nice boost in ISO and a 300-point OPS improvement against southpaws (.625 to .928 (!)), and it’s easy to understand how Rizzo went from a .264 TAv in 2013 to the .336 he posted last season.

So it’s a little more luck (and more hard-hit balls—his line-drive rate went up 2.5 percentage points), an improved approach against lefties, and a power surge that accounts for the difference in 2013 and 2014 for Rizzo. Almost everything else seemed to stay the same in 2014. His contact rate actually dipped half a percentage point, his swinging strike rate lowered a tenth of a point, he saw more pitches per plate appearance (3.78 to 4.02), but oddly enough, he actually swung at a higher percentage of pitches out of the zone (30 to 32.5) and fewer in the zone (66.5 to 62.1).

So the question now becomes, if it’s about luck, should Cubs fans fear that their all-star first baseman will once again get a dose of the bad variety? Luckily, for the Cubs and Rizzo, in this case, there's much more to his improvement than just numbers.

Rizzo’s results aren’t the only thing that changed in 2014. His entire stance did.

2013:

2014:

This past summer, Rizzo was more open, slightly crouched, and his hands were a little higher and away from his body. The open stance allowed him to not have to turn his head as much to see the pitcher—he was almost facing him—which meant Rizzo had an easier time locating the ball upon release, especially with southpaws.

The placement of Rizzo’s hands higher and further from his body kept him from getting beat by quality high heat as often, allowed him to reach for pitches on the outer half of the zone and do some damage, while also keeping him from getting beat inside.

2013:

2014:

The 2013 heat map shows a much more concentrated area of where Rizzo was hitting for power, pretty much only in the zone, over the heart of the plate. In 2014, it’s a completely different story. He’s still crushing pitches right over the plate, but he’s turning on the inside pitch, doing damage on pitches up, and driving pitches away.

The new stance was huge, but consistency was also a key.

2014

The above stroke stayed the same throughout the season. That wasn’t the case in 2013.

2013 May

2013 July

Just two months apart and the swings are different. In May the hands are lower and Rizzo is making that extra, probably unnecessary movement of bringing his hands up during his load. By July his hands are higher. This change and other slight adjustments were taking place throughout the 2013 season. I remember talking to both Rizzo and James Rowson, who was the Cubs hitting coach at the time, about these constant changes, particularly where his hands were placed pre-load. Rizzo was a little less candid (as players are often wont to do when it comes to mechanics), but both essentially admitted that when a hitter struggles he often tinkers with little things, trying to find that perfect spot where things work out. Normally these changes are barely visible to even the sharpest eye, but in Rizzo’s case, all this supposed fine tuning was leading to obvious changes and inconsistencies throughout the season.

See that pitch from July 2013? It’s over the outer half of the plate, Rizzo hit it to the first baseman for a would-be easy out. It ended up going through Brandon Belt’s legs, leading to two runs, but Rizzo didn’t do much with the pitch.

Now take a look at what he does with an outside pitch in 2014:

That one was about a half foot outside and Rizzo drove it into the left-field bleachers. Sure, that’s not the norm, but it just goes to show what a difference a year—and a mechanical change, one that’s utilized consistently—can make.

Now it’s not just numbers telling us that Rizzo was a different player in 2014, but an actual mechanical change that led to brilliant results. Add in the fact that Rizzo utilized the bunt numerous times (three hits in five attempts) to beat the shift, leading to teams playing him straight up more often, and it’s easy to believe that Rizzo’s success will be sustainable going forward.

The Cubs are going to need plenty of things to go their way if they expect to experience October baseball in 2015, but the key to the season may just be having Rizzo perform at the same MVP level that he did this past summer. The fact is, it wasn’t just a case of the ball bouncing his way that led to a great year. There were legitimate changes made by Rizzo that helped enable his impressive performance. All things considered, that’s at least one thing the Cubs and their fans don’t want to see change from 2014.

Thank you for reading

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MrPizzacoli
2/26
Great article, I was very curious as to the reasons behind Rizzo's breakout in 2014 aside from the increased BABIP.

It really makes you wonder how players who struggle mightily vs lefties could drastically improve their performance if they changed their stance and hand placement, thus allowing for them to see the ball better. I am not suggesting that if a player simply changes their stance and hand placement they will automatically be able to see the ball better and start raking because that would be asinine. However, the possibility of a drastic improvement resulting from a different stance/ hand placement is very intriguing.

More specifically, Jason Heyward's struggles vs lefties are the driving force behind my curiosity.
DoombergBaseball
2/26
Yeah, it would be really interesting to see. I still think that a lot of players could likely benefit from a mechanical change, but it's clearly very difficult to make such a thing stick.
sahadev22
2/26
Ideally, every issue a batter faces could be fixed with a slight mechanical change, but that isn't always the case. You have to first identify the cause of the problem (it's different with each individual), then you have to figure out the best way to correct the issue (also different for each individual), finally, the player has to be comfortable with any changes and execute them properly and consistently. Getting all three of those things done in an efficient manner is really difficult.
50cubs
2/26
James Rowson: hitting coach of the year? Let's see what he does with Javier Baez.
sahadev22
2/26
The current changes actually occurred under Renteria and Bill Mueller. John Mallee is the current hitting coach and is highly respected. But either way, getting Baez on the right track will definitely be a challenge and if he gets it done, a huge step in the right direction.