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Anthony Rizzo’s performance differed from his purpose in his Yankees stint

Rizzo was a fine player in his debut with New York, but he didn’t fulfill the role that he was tabbed for.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Anthony Rizzo was one of the most significant additions that the Yankees made to their team at the trade deadline. The big piece that they landed, Joey Gallo, ended up underperforming through the second half of the season, and while Rizzo is far from his prime he ended up swinging a decent bat with plus defense at first base, while also inserting a left-handed bat into a heavily right-handed lineup. Sounds like a solid midseason solution to a glaring issue on a team that had plenty of problems to deal with.

The problem, however, is that Rizzo didn’t exactly plug in and play how the Yankees expected him to fit when they acquired him. Specifically, Rizzo’s performance as a left-handed bat against right-handed pitching was largely missing, and it’s something that the Yankees have to consider when debating whether or not to re-sign Rizzo. The first baseman, who has expressed interest in returning, could command a sizeable market and require an investment that may not be worth the price tag for this team.

Rizzo was a surprise addition to the team, and when the deal was announced it felt as though Rizzo fit a lot of the needs that the team had — a well-rounded power hitter who doesn’t strike out much and plays great defense. The Yankees were bleeding runs over to their opponents with poor infield defense, and their offense was getting stalled out repeatedly with hitters that couldn’t protect each other in the lineup due to their overwhelmingly right-handed roster.

As far as the defense is concerned, Rizzo fulfilled all expectations there. But his lefty bat — made all the more important by Gallo’s slump sliding him down in the order and solidifying Rizzo as the regular No. 2 hitter — hadn’t been hitting right-handed pitching like usual that year. Rizzo has a career .874 OPS against righties, compared to a .788 OPS against lefties, but his performance inverted in 2021: he posted an excellent .901 OPS against lefties, but it was weighed down by a .733 OPS against righties. Aaron Boone’s insistence on having Rizzo up in the lineup to break up the righties led to the occasional error from an opposing manager, like when Alex Cora brought in Darwinzon Hernandez to face Rizzo and ended up surrendering a grand slam to Giancarlo Stanton in the next at-bat, but for the most part the results from this process weren’t materializing.

Even though Rizzo was producing these results already when the Yankees swung a deal for him, as far as rentals go Rizzo was fine. Getting a quality bat for cheap when there are no in-house options that are working is a sensible move. The question becomes whether he can turn that around should he be on the roster for 2022 and beyond, and that’s a tough projection. Rizzo since the start of 2020 has been a middle-of-the-pack first baseman, posting a .240/.343/.432 slash line — good for a 109 wRC+, slightly above-average but far from his former All-Star status.

To make a comparison, Josh Bell, who is in his last year of control before becoming an unrestricted free agent, has produced nearly identical numbers over the same timespan (.251/.355/.444 slash line, 107 wRC+) and will be making $9 million playing for the Nationals. Rizzo is a better fielder than Bell, but is coming off of a season where he made $16.5 million in the tail-end of a seven-year pact he made with the Cubs that was very team friendly. It’s safe to say that the Yankees would be hard-pressed to retain his services if his asking price remains around what he was making last year.

In the end, there’s an argument to be made for Rizzo’s return, and there’s reason to be satisfied with letting Rizzo walk as a pure rental. The Yankees have the roster space to bring him back, and if his role would fit lower in the lineup then it would be a sensible use of that spot. If the Yankees were counting on a rebound from Rizzo as a left-handed masher to balance the lineup, however, their expectations may have been whelmed.