MLB Baseball

Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' overlooked MVP

CHICAGO — Think back to before Willson Contreras got hurt. The Chicago Cubs catcher was in the midst of a scorching hot streak that was entering its sixth week.

During that time frame, beginning July 1, he hit 12 home runs with a .322 batting average and .389 on-base percentage. There was not a hotter hitter in baseball.

The stretch, which ended when Contreras suffered a strained hamstring, increased his season home run total to 21 — still five fewer than teammate Anthony Rizzo had at the time. The hot streak also brought Contreras within one RBI of Rizzo, while his batting average zoomed past the first baseman’s by 10 points — yet Rizzo’s on-base percentage remained 45 points higher. On the day of Contreras’ injury both had the same WAR, 3.4.

Even after such a torrid stretch, Contreras’ season stats were no better than Rizzo’s numbers, but manager Joe Maddon was asked several times by reporters if Contreras deserved MVP consideration. Rizzo’s name never came up.

Fast-forward to the last day of August. The Cubs beat the Braves 6-2 at Wrigley Field. Reigning MVP Kris Bryant hit his 25th home run, making him the first Cub to belt at least 25 in each of his first three seasons. Reporters mobbed him in the Cubs clubhouse after the game.

In the background, Rizzo walked quietly past them — even though he achieved a pretty rare feat himself that evening. With his two runs driven in against the Braves, Rizzo became the first Cub since Sammy Sosa in 2001 to drive in 30 runs in a month, wrapping up one of the great months in franchise history. Rizzo hit .355 in August with a .433 on-base percentage and a 1.060 OPS.

As Rizzo strolled through late that night, only one reporter said anything to him: “Nice month.” He responded to the passing comment with “I could have had more.” Then Bryant spoke at length of his 25 home runs as Rizzo left Wrigley Field.

Fast-forward again to last Thursday in Pittsburgh. Rizzo had just reached 100 RBIs for the season. Bryant had 60. If you don’t think RBIs are a meaningful stat, how does this one strike you? As of that same day, Rizzo had 79 walks to 77 strikeouts. Bryant had 84 walks to 110 strikeouts. And if defense is your thing, the reigning gold and platinum glove winner is on a rarely mentioned 124 game errorless streak, currently the longest among first baseman.

There was and is no question who is having the better season — but yet again Maddon was asked about his third baseman, not his first baseman, who has finished in fourth place in MVP voting each of the past two seasons.

Finally, Maddon realized enough was enough.

Reporter: “Not many mention Kris Bryant for MVP.”

Maddon: “Real consistent, but you have to include Anthony too. If you’re going to include KB, you have to include Anthony. Rizzo, look at his numbers. They’re pretty darn impressive. I wouldn’t want to hear about any MVP discussion about KB without including Rizzo.”

And that was the first time anyone — at least in a public setting surrounding the Cubs — mentioned Rizzo’s name for the MVP award. It was long overdue.

Just 24 hours earlier, Rizzo was named the Cubs finalist for the fifth consecutive season for a different honor, the Roberto Clemente Award for community service. That’s the award he really wants to win after going 0-for-4 thus far.

“Don’t get me wrong, I want to be known as a great baseball player when it’s all said and done, but I also want to be known as someone who was fortunate to have a big platform and do things with it in a good way,” Rizzo said recently. “Yeah, I want that Clemente award.”

Rizzo spoke not long after visiting the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh.

“What he [Clemente] really did is underrated in this game and all of sports,” Rizzo said. “All the work he did outside of baseball. I think there should be a push to have his number retired in the league. Jackie Robinson has his number retired, but this guy died serving people. It’s an amazing story. He deserves it as well.”

Rizzo’s story is pretty amazing as well. Diagnosed with cancer soon after being drafted by the Red Sox in 2008, he beat the disease and dedicated himself to helping and lifting the spirits of others. In 2017 alone, the Rizzo Family Foundation will raise about $ 2 million from his fundraisers which include “Walk-Off for Cancer,” “Cook-Off for Cancer” and “Laugh-Off for Cancer.” Plus, he just made a $ 3.5 million endowment to Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

Though his charitable contributions are being recognized, his game on the field seems to be overlooked at times. How can any discussion of an MVP candidate coming from the Cubs this season include Contreras or even Bryant but not Rizzo?

“The way this game is some guys get more attention than others,” Rizzo said. “It doesn’t bother me. If I’m more known for the charity work, that’s what this is all about, right?”

*****

Now as the Cubs play their most important games of the season, Rizzo is delivering when it matters most. He played a starring role in Thursday’s blowout, hitting a key home run as Chicago overcame an early deficit during a three-hit night that also featured two stolen bases. But it’s what Rizzo did the night before that might be even more indicative of the season he is having. While teammate Albert Almora earned the headlines with a six-RBI game, Rizzo did his part by seeing a team-high 26 pitches and drawing four walks during the 17-5 win.

Pushed to answer, Rizzo admits there is one statistical accomplishment that would mean a lot to him this season, especially in today’s era.

There are only a handful of players who have a shot at walking more than they strike out this year, with Joey Votto the poster player for doing it. After this week’s outburst against the Mets, Rizzo has exactly 83 walks and strikeouts, and a real chance of joining the Votto-led club.

“He’s unbelievable,” Rizzo said with a smile. “He’s on another level by himself. For the normal guys, like me, it’s difficult.”

Rizzo and Votto are considered throwbacks to a time when striking out was embarrassing. It’s a word Rizzo uses — but he understands not many in the game feel the same way.

“I say it sometimes,” Rizzo explained. “I go back to the dugout. ‘That was an embarrassing at-bat.’ But that’s my game. Someone else’s game is different.”

In Rizzo’s estimation — as well as Maddon’s — not enough players change their approach with two strikes. He hasn’t had as much success as others this year when you look purely at the numbers — he’s hitting .191 with two strikes — but a deeper examination shows productive at-bats. Rizzo has advanced a runner from second to third with no outs a career-high 72 percent of the time. His two-strike approach is at work in those instances.

“It’s simple,” he said. “The odds of getting a hit with two strikes are not in your favor. They’re very low, so trying to hit a home run, knowing that, it makes it even worse. I don’t like striking out. Everyone wants to hit home runs. I know if I put good swings on balls, good things will happen.”

Rizzo says his old-school approach began when he realized what it took to hit a home run compared with just making contact.

“I know if I hit the ball good, it’s going to go over the fence or in the gap,” Rizzo continued. “I think what has gone on with a lot of guys is they see Aaron Judge hit the ball 900 feet. Or [Giancarlo] Stanton. They have crazy pop. I don’t have that pop. I could try to generate it and hit the ball 500 feet all the time, but all I need to do is hit it 370 feet. Or in the gap. I understand that. You don’t get style points for how far it goes.”

*****

You’ll never hear Rizzo complain, but if he were to sound off, his targets would be the shift and the conditions at Wrigley Field. Right-center is actually deeper than left-center, and the wind blows in from right field in some capacity — straight in or as a cross wind — more than any other way. According to the Cubs, going into Wednesday’s game, the wind blew in or across in 57 of 73 games. As for the shift, there’s nothing worse than being a lefty who hits ground balls in today’s game.

“It’s a right-handed hitter’s game,” Rizzo said. “I can hit a ball between 3 and 4 [first and second] and it’s an out. The other way it’s a hit. It’s gotten so extreme, but what can you do about it?”

There’s little doubt the shifts are suppressing his batting average. And believe it or not, batting average and RBIs matter to Rizzo.

“I watch all these shows and hear things about stats, but if my average is where it needs to be, good things will happen,” he said. “I do want to drive 100 runs in every year.”

And that’s not the only area where Rizzo has a triple-digit hope for his numbers.

“Goal for me is 100 walks,” Rizzo said. “At the end of every year, I just want to prove to myself how good I can be. Then I want to do more and be better the next year. This year is no different. Year in and year out, you see the greats do it. Year in and year out.”

Even as one of the elder statesmen in the Cubs’ lineup at age 28, Rizzo feels he’s not done getting better and thinks his team could be ready to peak as the season goes on too.

“I feel like my best is yet to come because I’ve experienced everything,” Rizzo said. “As for the team, last year we dealt with all the pressure and the curse. There’s no pressure now. It’s just go win another championship. We have the experience and the talent. The playoffs in the National League are going to be great. You’ll have four teams [after the wild-card game] expecting to win the World Series. We want to be one.”

The MVP is announced in November and Rizzo is a long shot for it, but his eye is on the hardware they give out at the World Series anyway. Nothing would make him happier than accepting the Roberto Clemente Award while wearing his Cubs uniform before a late October game at Wrigley Field.

“That’s the award I want to win,” Rizzo said.

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