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There are reasons to have serious concerns about Anthony Rizzo’s production dropping in 2015

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Anthony Rizzo's quality of contact closely resembled an average hitter in 2014

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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Rizzo tore up the minor leagues in 2011 and 2012 as a member of both the Padres and Cubs farm systems and came to Chicago with a lot of hype. After a mediocre first 1,000 PA with the Cubs in which Rizzo generated a 108 wRC+, Rizzo put together a fantastic 2014 season. He hit .286/.386/.527 with 32 HR and a 153 wRC+. His 153 wRC+ was 8th best in baseball, his 32 HR was 9th best, and his 5.6 fWAR was 14th best. His results were elite.

However, results tell us what happened, but they don’t necessarily tell us what will happen in the future. In order to try to predict the future as best we can, we should look at the process behind the results. Good process will lead to good results in the future more often than shaky process will.

Sabermetric legend Paul DePodesta, currently working with the New York Mets, wrote this in 2008 as an executive for the Padres concerning process vs. results:

I'd like to write about the distinction between process and outcome, because this distinction permeates everything we do in baseball ops, never more so than in the draft.

Many years ago I was playing blackjack in Las Vegas on a Saturday night in a packed casino. I was sitting at third base, and the player who was at first base was playing horribly. He was definitely taking advantage of the free drinks, and it seemed as though every twenty minutes he was dipping into his pocket for more cash.

On one particular hand the player was dealt 17 with his first two cards. The dealer was set to deal the next set of cards and passed right over the player until he stopped her, saying: "Dealer, I want a hit!" She paused, almost feeling sorry for him, and said, "Sir, are you sure?" He said yes, and the dealer dealt the card. Sure enough, it was a four.

The place went crazy, high fives all around, everybody hootin' and hollerin', and you know what the dealer said? The dealer looked at the player, and with total sincerity, said: "Nice hit."

I thought, "Nice hit? Maybe it was a nice hit for the casino, but it was a terrible hit for the player! The decision isn't justified just because it worked."

Well, I spent the rest of that weekend wandering around the casino, largely because I had lost all of my money playing blackjack, thinking about all of these different games and how they work. The fact of the matter is that all casino games have a winning process - the odds are stacked in the favor of the house. That doesn't mean they win every single hand or every roll of the dice, but they do win more often than not. Don't misunderstand me - the casino is absolutely concerned about outcomes. However, their approach to securing a good outcome is a laser like focus on process...right down to the ruthless pit boss.

We can view baseball through the same lens. Baseball is certainly an outcome-driven business, as we get charged with a W or an L 162 times a year (or 163 times every once in a while). Furthermore, we know we cannot possibly win every single time. In fact, winning just 60% of the time is a great season, a percentage that far exceeds house odds in most games. Like a casino, it appears as though baseball is all about outcomes, but just think about all of the processes that are in play during the course of just one game or even just one at-bat.

In having this discussion years ago with Michael Mauboussin, who wrote "More Than You Know" (a great book - a link to Michael's strategy papers appears on my blogroll), he showed me a very simple matrix by Russo and Schoemaker in "Winning Decisions" that explains this concept:

We all want to be in the upper left box - deserved success resulting from a good process. This is generally where the casino lives. I'd like to think that this is where the Oakland A's and San Diego Padres have been during the regular seasons. The box in the upper right, however, is the tough reality we all face in industries that are dominated by uncertainty. A good process can lead to a bad outcome in the real world. In fact, it happens all the time. This is what happened to the casino when a player hit on 17 and won. I'd like to think this is what happened to the A's and Padres during the post-seasons. :-)

As tough as a good process/bad outcome combination is, nothing compares to the bottom left: bad process/good outcome. This is the wolf in sheep's clothing that allows for one-time success but almost always cripples any chance of sustained success - the player hitting on 17 and getting a four. Here's the rub: it's incredibly difficult to look in the mirror after a victory, any victory, and admit that you were lucky. If you fail to make that admission, however, the bad process will continue and the good outcome that occurred once will elude you in the future. Quite frankly, this is one of the things that makes Billy Beane as good as he is. He is quick to notice good luck embedded in a good outcome, and he refuses to pat himself on the back for it.

I bolded the final paragraph because of how important I think it is. The wolf in sheep’s clothing for the fantasy baseball player is the player who had fantastic results in the season directly prior but had a shaky process fueling those results. If you spend on this player based on his performance, there’s a good chance you’ll get burned and lose money.

I wrote about some of the processes that DePodesta and his boss Sandy Alderson use in their player evaluation here. The Cliff Notes of that is DePodesta and Alderson like to measure the type of contact a hitter generates. They use measures like exit velocity to see how fast the ball is coming off the bat, because hard hit balls are more likely to turn into hits and do damage than soft or medium hit balls. The players who generate the highest % of quality contact are the players they target. They’re less concerned with the results and more concerned with the process.

If this is what the really smart, highly paid professionals are doing for their player evaluation, the baseball public needs to try to mimic this as best we can. This is especially true for fantasy baseball players, who can win a lot of money playing daily leagues. Any little advantage a fantasy player can gain over the rest of the field can have a huge payoff.

Like DePodesta said above, you can’t guarantee a win in every baseball game, just like you can’t win all the time in daily fantasy leagues. But if you’re winning at a 60% clip, you’re doing great, and having a strong process can help tip the scale in our favor.

Contact types: Hard contact rules

These are the facts: the harder a ball is hit, the more likely it results in a hit. The batting average on hard hit balls is over .700. Medium hit balls result in a batting average of about .400, and soft hit balls result in a batting average of about .150.

The harder a ball is hit, the more likely it goes for extra bases, too. Almost 100% of home runs are hard hit. Over 80% of triples are hard hit, and over 70% of doubles are hard hit. Only 30% of singles are hard hit.

Hitters want to make a lot of hard contact. It’s good process. A good result backed by a good process (lots of hard contact) legitimizes the results. A good result backed by shaky process (not a lot of hard contact) makes for a murky future.

Rizzo’s hard hit% was amazingly below league average in 2014

It’s shocking that a first baseman who hit 32 HR with a 153 wRC+ would have a lower hard hit% than the average MLB hitter, but that’s what happened. Rizzo didn’t square the ball up as often as the results would lead you to believe. Rizzo’s hard hit% was 135th in baseball at 16.6%, below the league average of 17.2%.

For a small, loose comparison, here’s a list of the first 25 players with a hard hit% below league average (17.2%) in 2014 and their wRC+ (min. 200 AB):

Table 1

Player

Hard hit%

wRC+

Wellington Castillo

17.1%

91

Chris Coghlan

17.1%

123

Coco Crisp

17.1%

103

Chris Heisey

17.1%

77

Mike Moustakas

17.1%

76

Rickie Weeks

17.1%

127

Matt Carpenter

17.0%

117

Russell Martin

17.0%

140

Danny Santana

17.0%

133

Travis d’Arnaud

16.9%

103

Brian Dozier

16.9%

118

George Springer

16.9%

127

Nick Swisher

16.9%

75

Kolten Wong

16.9%

90

Brandon Crawford

16.8%

102

Bryce Harper

16.8%

115

Adam Jones

16.8%

117

Ryan Ludwick

16.8%

91

Curtis Granderson

16.7%

108

Brayan Pena

16.7%

77

Michael Choice

16.6%

55

David Freese

16.6%

106

Jhonny Peralta

16.6%

120

Jose Reyes

16.6%

102

Anthony Rizzo

16.6%

153

The average wRC+ from that table is roughly 106. I also extended the sample size to the first 50 players below average hard hit% instead of the first 25, and the wRC+ was roughly 106 again.

Compare this to Table 2, a table of the top 25 players in hard hit% and their wRC+s:

Table 2

Player

Hard hit rate

wRC+

Troy Tulowitzki

24.1%

171

Paul Goldschmidt

23.7%

155

David Ortiz

23.7%

135

Miguel Cabrera

23.3%

147

Devin Mesoraco

23.3%

147

Victor Martinez

23.1%

166

Andrew McCutchen

22.9%

168

Adrian Beltre

22.9%

141

Edwin Encarnacion

22.4%

150

Corey Dickerson

21.8%

140

Lucas Duda

21.6%

136

Josh Donaldson

21.4%

129

Albert Pujols

21.3%

124

Michael Brantley

21.3%

155

Josh Harrison

21.2%

137

Evan Gattis

21.0%

125

Freddie Freeman

21.0%

140

Anthony Rendon

21.0%

130

Buster Posey

20.9%

144

Carlos Santana

20.6%

131

Jose Bautista

20.5%

159

Giancarlo Stanton

20.5%

159

Justin Upton

20.4%

133

Kyle Seager

20.4%

126

Josh Reddick

20.2%

117

The average wRC+ in table 2 is 143. It’s no surprise that players who hit the ball hard more often had better results on average than players who hit the ball hard less often.

Rizzo’s medium hit% was also below league average in 2014

Once I saw that Rizzo’s hard hit% was so low, I figured his medium hit% had to be very high to compensate, because medium hit balls are good, too. Hitters bat .400 on average when they generate medium contact. But that isn’t what happened, either. Rizzo’s medium hit% was also shockingly below MLB average:

2014

Hard hit%

Medium hit%

Soft hit%

MLB avg.

17.2%

21.7%

41.9%

Rizzo

16.6%

20.2%

41.6%

Based on the quality of contact Rizzo generated in 2014, he looks like a league average hitter. And to further support that, the average wRC+ from the group of the first 25 and first 50 players directly below average in hard hit% is roughly 106, which is around league average.

Of course, a hard hit home run is worth more than a hard hit double. So if a higher % of Rizzo’s hard hit balls are going for home runs, that will explain some of the difference between him and the average MLB hitter. But a 153 wRC+ is extreme.

Compare Rizzo’s quality of contact to some other notable 1B:

2014

Hard hit%

Medium hit%

Soft hit%

Anthony Rizzo

16.6%

20.2%

41.6%

Freddie Freeman

21.3%

25.2%

29.9%

Miguel Cabrera

23.7%

27.3%

32.4%

Edwin Encarnacion

22.6%

21.4%

38.9%

Paul Goldschmidt

24.6%

18.0%

31.3%

I looked up other first baseman with comparable strikeout, walk and batted ball rates to Rizzo in 2014 and listed their type of contact rates along with their wRC+. Here’s the closest comparison I could find:

Player

BB%

K%

Hard hit%

Med. hit%

Soft hit%

FB%

GB%

LD%

IFFB%

wRC+

A

11.9%

18.8%

16.6%

20.2%

41.6%

41.8%

36.1%

22.1%

5.9%

153

B

14.0%

18.4%

20.9%

24.3%

37.4%

41.2%

36.6%

22.1%

4.9%

127

Player A is of course Anthony Rizzo, and Player B is Adam LaRoche.

LaRoche and Rizzo have nearly identical batted ball numbers, while LaRoche has a better walk rate, a slightly better strikeout rate, and significantly better quality of contact rates. Yet LaRoche’s wRC+ is significantly lower than Rizzo’s. LaRoche’s process is significantly better, yet Rizzo’s results are significantly better.

The next closest comparison based on walk rate and strikeout rate was Ike Davis.

Player

BB%

K%

Hard hit%

Med. hit%

Soft hit%

FB%

GB%

LD%

IFFB%

wRC+

Anthony Rizzo

11.9%

18.8%

16.6%

20.2%

41.6%

41.8%

36.1%

22.1%

5.9%

153

Ike Davis

14.8%

18.3%

15.8%

23.1%

40.6%

37.4%

39.5%

23.1%

13.1%

108

The differences between Davis’ profile and Rizzo’s profile are moderate, yet the difference between their wRC+s is extreme. It doesn’t add up.

I have no explanation for why Rizzo’s production was so offline from his quality of contact except for baseball randomness. I have serious questions about what type of hitter Rizzo truly is at this stage of his career.

Let me clarify that I am by no means suggesting Rizzo is not talented. And the fact that he didn’t hit the ball hard that often in 2014 doesn’t mean he won’t cream the ball in the future years as he gets older and more experienced. He has a strong prospect pedigree to lean on (MLB.com ranked him the #37 best prospect prior to 2012) and the raw abilities to succeed in MLB. But just by looking at the process behind the 2014 results, it doesn’t seem likely that his wRC+ of 153 reflected his true skill because his quality of contact rates closely resembled a league average hitter.

The wolf in sheep’s clothing in 2015 is paying for Anthony Rizzo like he’s a 153 wRC+ type hitter. Unless Rizzo’s quality of contact significantly improves in 2015, I’m predicting a significant decline in production.