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Anthony Rizzo and the two-strike approach

The Yankee first baseman clearly changes his approach with two strikes. Is it worth it?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Let’s face it: Every hitter sucks in a two strike count. Full time hitters, ones with at least 100 PA ending in a two strike count, manage a .230 wOBA, or about 30 points worse than Tyler Wade’s career line. It’s a tough position to be put in, and one that has been made tougher and tougher with advents in pitch design and more aggressive relief work.

And yet there are players who, consistently, perform better than that .230 wOBA year in and year out. Some of them you can probably guess — Mike Trout has the third-highest wOBA with two strikes over the past three seasons, Mookie Betts the sixth, and Juan Soto the tenth. These are three of the absolute best hitters in baseball, it’s not that surprising to see them top the list of any split.

One player on the Yankees that gets a lot of attention for his two-strike approach is Anthony Rizzo, and even just visually you can pick up on his very real changes in The Bad Counts:

So here we have Tony in the opening of a plate appearance, with a “static” stance, and him in the hitting position as the pitch travels to the plate. Fortunately for us, Rizzo saw a two-strike count in this at-bat, so we can show the changes he makes almost in real time:

Rizzo famously chokes up on the bat with two strikes, which gives a hitter a little more control over the bat head, allowing for more in-swing adjustment to protect the plate. It’s the obvious change, but there are a couple other small differences that I think are actually more important.

First, his step is significantly lower with two strikes — almost a slide step forward rather than a real kick. This keeps him much more balanced through the weight transfer and stops him from opening his hips too early. He stays back on the ball, is able to track it better, and creates more of a contact-oriented swing. He’s also just a hair more closed off; more of the #48 is visible and his right hip is just a bit closed. This also helps keep him back on the ball, and while he sacrifices a lot of pull power, he adds an ability to flip the ball to left field.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in that above at bat ... Rizzo doesn’t strike out, but he weakly pops out to third baseman Matt Chapman. Rizzo consistently runs a low strikeout rate — it’s fair to be disappointed in his offensive performance with the Yankees, running a 97 wRC+, but his 13.6 percent strikeout rate is the lowest on the team since joining. He’s traded a low strikeout rate for weak contact.

Antony Rizzo does hit better than the league with two strikes — over the past three seasons his .276 wOBA puts him comfortably in the 90th percentile in The Bad Counts. But what’s interesting about his approach is that tradeoff with soft contact:

There are players that hit the ball harder with two strikes, in fact over the past three seasons there are 53, and you can see the top thirty here. There are another 20 players that have no chance in exit velocity with two strikes, and players like Bryce Harper and Michael Brantley fall in here. And then there’s Rizzo:

Rizzo has one of the biggest drops in exit velo with two strikes relative to baseline. There are good hitters on this part of the list, without a doubt, and Rizzo is one of them. But it’s worth asking whether making such adjustments with two strikes is as effective as we think it is.

Bo Bichette is a hitter that wins many accolades for doing pretty much the same thing Rizzo does, but he hits considerably worse with two strikes than the league average. Aaron Judge, who only sees a .2 decrease in average exit velo with two strikes, and hits much better than Rizzo in The Bad Counts, doesn’t really have a mechanical change varying with the count.

What works for Anthony Rizzo works for Anthony Rizzo — he’s been a consistently good-to-great hitter in MLB, and I think there is value in having a low-strikeout bat complimenting the Judges, Giancarlo Stantons and Joey Gallos of the club. But I also think there’s a real risk in holding him up to be a model for other players. Aaron Judge has hit much better with two strikes than Rizzo over the past three seasons. Stanton has hit exactly as well with two strikes over the past three seasons. Rizzo’s really good at what he does, but just because he has a very obvious, and frankly old-school adjustment in The Bad Counts, doesn’t mean that’s the mold for every player.