Anthony Rizzo's 2014 performance was a shock to many. He showcased his power potential in 2013, but he didn't produce as well as the Cubs hoped for. He only hit .233 with a wOBA of .322 and a wRC+ of 103. Both his wOBA and wRC+ were only slightly above league average.
However, these numbers drastically changed in 2014 when Rizzo produced a .286 batting average, a wOBA of .397, and a wRC+ of 153. How did Rizzo increase his numbers so dramatically? His walk rate only slightly increased in 2014. He produced an 11.9% BB% in 2014 compared to an 11.0% in 2013 -- not a huge jump. His strikeout rate was actually worse in 2014 than it was in 2013. He produced an 18.8% K% in 2014 compared to an 18.4% in 2014.
Compared to those peripherals that we usually use to identify a hitter's change in production, there are two other factors that we can likely attribute to Rizzo's increased production during 2014.
His 2013 BABIP was .258 which is well below-average. This saw a huge jump in 2014 to .311. We know that BABIP can be affected by three things: defense, luck, and talent level. Could it be that Rizzo just squared up the ball a lot more in 2014? Short answer: no. According to ESPN's Mark Simon and his "hard-hit rate" Rizzo produced a hard-hit rate of 21.2% in 2013. Hard-hit% is a good tool in determining players who run into bad luck. I'd say Rizzo's 2013 undoubtedly had bad luck. Let's take a look at the numbers of the two guys he was sandwiched between.
He hit the ball hard about the same percentage as both Davis and Zimmerman, yet his average was over 40 points lower than theirs. Of the top 50 leaders in hard-hit rate for 2013, Rizzo had the lowest BABIP. Seems a bit unlucky to me.
Now, let's compare Rizzo's 2013 numbers to 2014.
Well, that seems a little counterintuitive. His hard hit rate dropped nearly six percent, yet his numbers across the board vastly improved. This leads to my next point of improvement for Rizzo.
Change in Approach vs. Left-handed Pitchers
As many have noted, Rizzo did an excellent job changing his approach in 2014 and going with what the pitchers gave him. While he didn't make as hard of contact in 2014, he was a better all-around hitter. He used the whole field and was able to produce against balls low and away, rather than rolling over on them. More notably, Rizzo was much, much better against left-handed pitchers.
Take a look at his statistics when facing left-handed pitchers over the past two years:
Let's take a look at his swing percentage from 2013 to 2014. Take note of his approach against lefties.
Rizzo's swing percentage was much lower in 2014, which emphasizes his change in approach and growing patience at the plate. Now, let's take a look at the difference in his whiff percentage -- particularly against left-handed pitchers.
As you can see, his whiff percentage was tremendously lower against lefties in 2014. Rizzo improved his ability to hit lefties in 2014 which led to a much more productive season for him. His hard-hit rate was lower, but he was a much more productive hitter. Although many believe he is due for regression, if Rizzo's hard-hit rate rises closer to what is was in 2013, we could see Rizzo produce similar results in 2015 as he did in 2014. Or he could be even better, if this happens and his luck improves quite a bit from what happened in 2013.
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All data courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball.
Brandon Decker is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @bdeck02.