Anthony Rizzo is a very, very good ballplayer, in case you didn’t know. The Cubs first baseman broke out in a big way last year by accumulating 5.6 fWAR (5.1 bWAR, if that's what floats your boat) and hitting .286/.386/.527 to go along with 32 homers. Rizzo also stole a base five times, though that isn’t all that remarkable by itself. That little factoid does, however, make Rizzo’s six steals in twenty games this season pretty darn interesting. If that doesn’t merit an incredibly overdone analytical look chock full of GIFS, I don’t know what does. Has Rizzo simply become a suddenly great base swiper? Or has he just gotten really lucky?
Steal No. 1 (April 18th)
Rizzo is on base in the first inning after singling off Tyson Ross. With Kris Bryant at the plate, Rizzo takes off on the 1-2 pitch. It ends up being a bouncer in the dirt that Wil Nieves keeps in front of him, but he doesn’t have a play and Rizzo is safe at second. Would Rizzo have been able to steal the base cleanly had Ross not bounced the pitch? It’s hard to tell. Replays show Rizzo getting a decent jump, and Nieves has only thrown out 24% of those who have run on him. I’m willing to give Rizzo the benefit of the doubt here. Bryant, who had done nothing but strike out in his debut the previous day, was undoubtedly seeing a breaking ball on the two strike count from the slider specialist Ross. Had it been a fastball count, Rizzo would have had a poorer chance of succeeding. Edge Rizzo on this one.
Steal No. 2 (April 18th)
Two in one game! It’s Bryant at the plate again, except there is a new battery. The Cubs are batting in the bottom of the 11th inning, and Craig Kimbrel is pitching to Derek Norris. Right away we know that Rizzo has an advantage, because anybody who watched the AL Wild Card game last year can tell you that Norris has some issues with throwing out runners. Runners also have historically had a 77% success rate on Kimbrel as he’s actually somewhat slow to the plate. Unlike the first steal, though, Rizzo ends up running on a 97 MPH heater that winds up outside (Norris set up in, as you can see). While that does make Norris’ pop and transfer easier, he still ends up bouncing the throw. It’s interesting that Rizzo ran on an 0-2 count here, but again he read the battery well and knew he had a good shot. Notice how he’s about two thirds of the way to second just after Norris releases the ball. That’s just smart baserunning. Edge Rizzo, although I'm tempted to give Norris credit for that scowl.
Steal No. 3 (April 20th)
Rizzo would steal again two days later, this time against the Pirates. A.J. Burnett put Rizzo on when he grounded into a fielder’s choice (Jorge Soler was out on the play), and of course Bryant was at the plate. Behind the plate was newly minted Pittsburgh Pirate Francisco Cervelli. On a 1-1 pitch to Bryant, Rizzo takes off.
A number of factors gave Rizzo the base. The first is that Burnett is incredibly slow to the plate, and on top of that he throws an 83mph breaking ball. Rizzo is able to get a great jump. The second is Cervelli’s throw, which pulls shortstop Jung-ho Kang off the bag slightly and allows Rizzo to slide in under him. Had Cervelli’s throw been on the money this would have been a much closer play, but I like the decision to run here. These two are a good pair to run on. Cervelli has thrown out only 21% of runners in his career, and this season runners have a 21-5 record against him this year. Yikes. Edge to Rizzo for reading the play well.
Steal No. 4 (April 24th)
Until now Rizzo had been running on relatively slow pitchers and catchers that didn’t control the running game well. This time, the battery was Aroldis Chapman and Brayan Peña (29.9% success in catching runners). And he stole third. Confused yet? It gets better.
Rizzo was on second after doubling off Chapman, who then walked Kris Bryant. Wellington Castillo flied out to center, which Brought Starlin Castro to the plate. After taking strike one, Joe Maddon called for the double steal.
It was executed flawlessly. Peña hadn’t been paying the runners any mind at all because, well, Aroldis Chapman was on the mound and nobody is crazy enough to call for a double steal then and there, right? Perhaps Peña and Bryan Price forgot that Maddon was in the other dugout and not Rick Renteria. Either way, Rizzo and Bryant stole their bags without a throw. What a world we live in. Edge to Joe Maddon.
Steal No. 5 (April 26th)
It’s Brayan Peña behind the plate again, but this time it’s Anthony DeSclafani on the mound. Rizzo takes off on the 0-2 pitch to Bryant, a 94mph sinker. Peña once again doesn’t even attempt a throw down to second because Rizzo has the bag stolen easily. He timed DeSclafani’s motion perfectly. He didn’t even get that big of a lead. DeScalafani is just slow to the plate. Edge to Rizzo once again.
Steal No. 6 (April 28th)
Another double steal! This time Maddon sent Rizzo with Dexter Fowler ahead of him. Fowler had run for third on the previous pitch, which Jorge Soler fouled off. It’s unclear whether Fowler was supposed to run by himself or if Rizzo simply missed the sign. Either way, the two ran on a 1-2 Jeff Locke 81 MPH outside curveball, and the arm-deficient Francisco Cervelli was behind the plate again. No throw was attempted. It’s worth noting that Locke was over 80 pitches by this point, and it was only the 4th inning. He clearly didn’t have it that night, so Maddon rightfully felt comfortable testing his luck here. Good call by the manager, edge to Maddon.
Rizzo Caught Stealing No. 1 (April 29th)
And here is the first bump in the road for our hero. On Wednesday, Rizzo was on first as Miguel Montero was at the plate with a full count and two outs. Gerrit Cole was the pitcher, Chris Stewart the catcher. This is notable. Stewart is regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game and has caught 31% of runners in his career. He’s now at 50% for the season after catching Rizzo. Stewart marks the most dangerous arm that Rizzo has run against yet, and it’s the first time he’s done it in a less than ideal situation. Stewart guns him down with time to spare as Montero strikes out, and the inning is over. Had there been no outs this move would have been somewhat defensible, but with an out on the board it’s silly. Montero strikes out at a fair clip, and Cole was rocking a 9.85 K/9 at the start of the game. You can’t win them all, but this was pretty silly and results in a classic TOOTBLAN. Edge to Chris Stewart’s howitzer arm.
The good news is that Rizzo has already surpassed his stolen base total from last year and tied his Major League career high from 2013. Because I can’t poke around inside Joe Maddon’s brain, I can’t say for certain whether Rizzo’s new habit is a result of the coaching staff being liberal with sending him or if it’s Rizzo’s own doing. I can tell you that the Cubs are in second place in the league for steals (they have 25), while last year they finished in 24th place in that category with only 65. Joe Maddon is running his players a lot, and it’s paying dividends. Of course, the Cubs didn’t have the speedy Fowler last year, or a whole lot of Jorge Soler. Yet they did have Anthony Rizzo, and he’s already beaten his steals mark. He's running in smart situations that maximize his chance for success, and he's doing it well. It’s absolutely something to keep an eye on.
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Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.