Anthony Rizzo off to a great start but in the shadows

Anthony Rizzo is in a celebration mood at Yankee Stadium.
Michael Bennington
Thursday April 20, 2023

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NEW YORK — Yankees fans love Anthony Rizzo for his ever-smiling presence in the team. But the first baseman has a low-key presence when it comes to media coverage. As the regular season is off to a great start for the Yankees, Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole have been getting most of the attention of admirers. Critics are focusing on injuries and underperforming players like Aaron Hicks and Clarke Schmidt. Meanwhile, Anthony Rizzo is quietly off to a red-hot start to the season.

Anthony Rizzo is really good

As of Wednesday night’s game, Anthony Rizzo had a .310 batting average, 18 hits, and an OPS of .966. This made him the Yankees’ best player. He has also given the Yankees some power in the middle of their lineup. He has hit four home runs and driven in nine runs.

“He’s been really good,” according to Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “I feel like he started to find his rhythm at the back end of spring training where he really started to have a couple of games with good at-bats and then he’s carried that right into the season. He’s just been really impactful. He’s been getting on base a ton. He’s obviously got some homers. He’s gotten some big hits.”

Anthony Rizzo’s early success has carried over to the defensive side of the ball, too. Even though he has played in less than 20 games, Anthony Rizzo is in the 99th percentile of the league in Outs Above Average, Statcast’s comprehensive fielding metric. This year, his three defensive runs saved are tied for the best among all qualified first basemen.

Anthony Rizzo prospers with new rules

New rules in 2023 that limit defensive shifts were thought to help Anthony Rizzo’s offense. In 2022, Anthony Rizzo faced shifts 82.6 percent of the time, and he often lost hits because hard contact was swallowed up on the right side of the infield. Last year, he tied his career high for home runs with 32, but his batting average of .224 was one of the lowest in a single season over his 13-year career.

Boone agreed that Anthony Rizzo has been helped by this year’s rule change so far, but not by a huge amount.

“I can think of probably three hits or so, maybe three or four, that probably aren’t hits last year,” Boone said.

Boone said that one can’t measure or count the long-term effects of these hits. Instead of an out, a slow roller that leaks through the right side or a line drive into shallow right could be a key to success and a confidence boost.

The main point about Anthony Rizzo here is that he’s healthy. It’s too soon to say that his back problems are gone, but this is a good sign. He missed a trip in spring training because of his back problems, which also put him on the injured list last season. With slugger Giancarlo Stanton sidelined for the next six weeks and center fielder Harrison Bader still on the injured list, Anthony Rizzo’s presence in the middle of the order is critical to the Yankees’ offensive machine’s success.

“I know he’s been feeling really good,” Boone added. “It’s been encouraging to see the start he’s gotten off to and he’s really important to our lineup, especially from that left side. That one lefty we kind of have consistently in the top, middle of the order.”

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