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Why Anthony Rizzo will have a bounceback season with the Yankees

The veteran first baseman was a slight disappointment in 2021, but there are reasons to believe he can return some pretty nice value for the Yankees this season.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

The Yankees had the chance to bring Freddie Freeman, via free agency, and Matt Olson, via trade, during the offseason. They ended up re-signing Anthony Rizzo to take care of first base on a two-year, $32 million contract, which was seen as a slight disappointment given the mentioned alternatives, but may not be such a bad thing, all things considered.

For some time, I just assumed Rizzo was a declining asset. It had become evident if we just looked at the end-of-the-season numbers: after finishing with a 140 wRC+ and a .924 OPS in 2019 with the Chicago Cubs, his numbers declined to 102 and .755 respectively in 2020 and 112 and .783 in 2021.

At 32, it became hard to imagine him rebounding to a 120-125 wRC+ performance in 2022, having seen him for 576 plate appearances last year. That’s not an insignificant sample right there — he played virtually all year. Now, however, I can see him bouncing back in 2022. Not to that 2019 level, in which he eclipsed the .900 OPS threshold, but definitely better than last year’s .783 mark (.768 with the Yankees).

This is not a direct result of his blistering start in 2022, which has seen him slash .250/.500/.750 with two homers, three runs, six RBI, a 22.2 percent walk rate and an 11.1 percent strikeout rate before Tuesday’s game. He also had a 233 wRC+ and a 1.250 OPS. However, it’s part of the analysis. Not those stats per se, but his contact quality and plate discipline numbers. A quick peek at Rizzo’s Statcast profile in the early going tells us several things:

He is hitting the ball hard often, he is not chasing, he is barreling it frequently, and his plate discipline numbers are looking fantastic. He won’t replicate his .280 or .290 batting averages from a few years ago, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t matter as long as he shows the power and patience he is currently displaying.

Perhaps more importantly, he closed the year in strong fashion last season. After landing on the Yankees from the Cubs, he was 9-for-32 with three homers, but had to take a break because he tested positive for COVID-19. He was symptomatic, and evidently, it took him some time to find his stride again upon returning: from August 18, the day he was activated, to August 24, he had just one hit in 21 plate appearances, his walk rate plummeted to 4.8 percent, and his strikeout rate increased to 23.8 percent. Over that little span, his wRC+ was a shocking -39. All uncharacteristic numbers for him.

From August 26 until the end of the season, however, he rebounded to slash .268/.353/.447 with five homers and a 122 wRC+. In reality, that’s about what we can expect from Rizzo: even his 60th percentile PECOTA projection (which would mean he does slightly better than expected) has him at 144 games, a .261/.368/.456 slash line, 22 home runs, 122 DRC+, and 2.9 WARP, which would be a nice floor for a first baseman. If he is healthy, however, Rizzo should be able to eclipse that homer total.

Even his 50th percentile projection has him over .800 OPS: at .257/.364/.444 with 21 homers, 119 DRC+, and 2.6 WARP. With the way he is swinging the bat right now, a rebound campaign from Rizzo shouldn’t be a crazy thought.