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Anthony Rizzo is no longer leg kicking

The slight swing change is paying off big time for the lefty slugger.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

I think I’m allowed to say it at this point, right? Anthony Rizzo is back. Our own Andrés Chávez hinted at it a few weeks ago, so I’m here to confirm it. When I was in attendance on Opening Day, I expressed that I was upset with Rizzo’s presence on the Yankees’ roster. By the looks of it in 2021, he was washed. In fact, immediately before Rizzo sent a towering shot into the right-field bleachers, I whispered to my brother, “This guy swings a wet noodle.”

I thought that Rizzo’s pop was gone and the Yankees were only getting a great fielding first baseman with great defense and iffy power. But boy, it seems like I was wrong.

I won’t dive too deep into Rizzo’s batted-ball profile because not much has changed in the time since Andrés dove into it. However, the gist is that he his hitting ball hard and at an ideal launch angle with consistency. It’s hard to fluke hitting the ball on the screws with authority. Instead, I want to investigate how Rizzo got to this point after looking like a less strong version of himself last year, or really the last few years.

A highly traditional view point in the baseball community is that you shouldn’t pull the ball too much. That may be correct in certain situations, but I will pose a question which doubts that tenet’s absoluteness. What if a hitter’s body and swing are best-suited to pull the ball in the air consistently? In addition to that, was if said player is now playing half their games in a park which is a match made in heaven for a lefty who pulls the ball a ton?

Rizzo has jumped his pull rate to a career-high of 55.6 percent. To put that into context, he has never pulled the ball more than 44 percent of the time in his career. That type of change is incredible to see and is paying off big-time in Yankee Stadium. Not only is he pulling the ball more than ever, but he is lifting the ball in the air more often too.

Rizzo’s average launch angle on pulled batted balls in 2020 and 2021 were 12.7 and 11.6 degrees, respectively. In 2022, he has increased it to 16.3. He has made a very conscious adjustment to launch the ball into right field. That’s not just something you do overnight. It takes a swing adjustment to do so. Let’s see what he did.

Both these home runs came in 2022. They are obviously both good swings too. They resulted in home runs, and one of them was off Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray. That said, his 2022 home runs (and swing in general) have some slight differences.

Okay. Can you see the most obvious change? The leg kick is completely gone. Rizzo is now toe-tapping and getting his swing started a bit earlier. I can see why he (or his hitting coach) wanted to take it away. His load looked segmented at times. It’s not the easiest thing to explain, but his row* has quieted down as a result of cleaning up the leg lift.

*For those unfamiliar, the row is when a hitter loads his hands and combs the barrel.

This is the thing about a big leg kick like the one in Rizzo’s old approach. The cadence at which you lift the leg and put it down must adjust to different pitch speeds. If you’re not on time, you can rush getting down and into your load. If that does happen, it may be a bit tougher to get the barrel far enough out to pull the ball in the air consistently.

If the early data says anything, it’s that Rizzo is trying to put his body in a better position to pull the ball more often. Taking away extra movements has let him get his bat head out further more often. In general, his posture looks more consistent too. Something I’ve realized when watching Rizzo at-bats is that he sometimes doesn’t rotate in the mid-point of his body as he is swinging. That can result in foul balls back or high fly balls. When Rizzo comfortably lands after his leg lift, he maintains great posture as he rotates.

Getting rid of the leg lift can help with this. How? If you land too heavy on your front leg, your body doesn’t properly transfer energy. To compensate for a harder landing, a hitter can rotate over his back leg, rather than from their center point. That also moves the point of contact further back and not out in front like it needs to be if you are trying to launch balls to right field. Crazy, isn’t it? A slight change in how you gather yourself has a wave of effects down the kinetic chain.

Of course, this isn’t always the unlock for every hitter, but it sure does seem to be working for Rizzo so far. He already had a great swing and ability to make contact. It’s weird to see a three-time All-Star who has leg kicked for so long ditch the approach, but with age, your body changes and your swing needs to change with it. He is making the most of the park dimensions and catering his swing towards being a straight-pull, fly-ball swing.

The Yankees took a risk by bringing back Rizzo, given the alternatives, but sometimes, it makes sense to bet on hitters who have such a great understanding for their own swing. Let’s hope that he continues hitting ball hard, but his swing suggests he certainly will.