How Has Anthony Rizzo Performed with the Yankees?
By Chris O’Connor
September 20, 2021
*All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant
A few weeks ago, I took a look at Joey Gallo’s early struggles with the Yankees. Today, I wanted to discuss the impact that Anthony Rizzo has had on the team in his brief time here. Offensively, Rizzo has had very similar production between the Cubs and the Yankees. In 92 games with the Cubs, he slashed .248/.346/.446 with a 9.6% walk rate and 15.7% strikeout rate. He was also on pace for 25 home runs per 162 games. In 36 games with the Yankees, he has slashed .242/.336/.422 with a 9.4% walk rate and 13.4% strikeout rate. His 6 home runs with the team would put him on pace for 27 home runs per 162 games. His WRC+ and wOBA was 114 and .341 with the Cubs; with the Yankees, those numbers are 109 and .330. The picture is clear: Rizzo has been mostly the same hitter with the Yankees as he was with the Cubs, albeit with a slight decline in most of his numbers. Peeling under the hood, however, often tells a different story. What do the numbers say in Rizzo’s case?
I initially thought Rizzo was getting unlucky with the Yankees: his BABIP of .240 with the team is far lower than his career average of .283. Plus, he has taken to using all fields since he got to New York: his pull rate has fallen from 47.9% to 43.6% and his opposite field rate is up from 19.9% to 25.5%. This makes it more difficult in theory for teams to successfully shift against him, and that is borne out in the stats: his wOBA on the season is nearly identical when he is shifted against (.337) versus when he is not shifted against (.340). The concerning thing about Rizzo, however, is that he simply is not hitting the ball as hard with the Yankees. His average exit velocity is down to 88.4 MPH from 91.1 MPH and his hard hit rate is down from 43.1% to 32.7%. Still, though that hard hit rate is a little concerning, his career average exit velocity is 89.1 MPH, so it is not like this is some massive dropoff. And while the hits have not dropped as frequently, the timeliness of those that have has been great for the team.
When Rizzo was acquired from the Yankees, I was excited because he brings three things that the Yankees badly needed: a left-handed, contact bat to diversify the lineup, a veteran presence who knows how to get the job done when the pressure is on, and exceptional defense at first base. Rizzo has a season-long strikeout rate of just 15.1%; that is in the 86th percentile league wide, and as noted that rate has dropped to 13.4% with the Yankees. I really just like the change of approach that he has when compared with the plethora of boom-or-bust hitters that the Yankees have. Veteran leadership is difficult to quantify, particularly when it comes from a trade deadline acquisition. But Rizzo seems to be the kind of hitter who shortens up his approach when the situation dictates it and focuses on just getting the job done. With runners in scoring position in 2021, his batting average goes up to .273 and his strikeout rate drops to 10.9%. I understand that batting average is not the best to evaluate a player, but it becomes more relevant with RISP because all that is generally needed to get the run home is a single. Rizzo delivers on this, and despite playing in only 36 games with the team, his Win Probability Added is actually fourth among Yankees position players (Tyler Wade is notably third on that list). So, even though his traditional batting statistics with the Yankees are more good than great, Rizzo has indeed contributed greatly to winning ball games in his brief time with the team.
Defensive value is notoriously difficult to quantify, but Rizzo has long been regarded as an excellent first baseman and his performance in 2021 does not dispute that. He ranks tops among all first baseman and in the 96th percentile league wide in Statcast’s Outs Above Average, which has long loved his defense. While Defensive Runs Saved is less bullish, ranking him just 14th among first baseman in 2021, that would still be a big defensive upgrade on Luke Voit. The Yankees new infield configuration makes defense at first base that much more important. Gio Urshela is playing out of position at shortstop and D.J. Lemahieu is playing what may be his third-best position at third base. The only infielder playing his most optimal position, besides Rizzo, is Gleyber Torres, who needed to be moved to second base because his defense at shortstop was really hurting the team. Not exactly a great situation. Aaron Boone’s reluctance to take Rizzo out of the lineup may frustrate some fans who want to see Luke Voit play more, but it makes more sense when considering the context.
Ultimately, I believe Anthony Rizzo’s fit with the Yankees has been relatively seamless. While he has not exactly lit up the scoreboard, his timely hitting and exceptional defense brings an element that the Yankees have long been lacking. Rizzo is a free agent at the end of the season. While Rizzo reportedly declined a five year, $70 million extension in spring training with the Cubs, I find it difficult to believe that he will match those numbers as a 32 year-old first baseman whose performance has declined over the past few years. I can absolutely see the Yankees making an effort to re-sign him at a reduced rate, which would force the team to consider trading Luke Voit (as I argued they should do last offseason). Rizzo’s impact with the team has been undeniable, and I cannot wait to see what he can do in the playoffs if the Yankees can find a way to squeak into a Wild Card spot.