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Anthony Rizzo and lefty magic

The Yankees have wanted a left-handed batter in the #3 spot forever. It looks like they’ve found their man

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

I’m writing this on Friday morning, watching a replay of the Thursday walk-off win over the Astros, and a funny thing is occurring to me. The premise of this piece is how valuable Anthony Rizzo has been, not just in the lineup generally but in the three-hole specifically, and I was going to use his incredible, unbelievable, 16-pitch walk in the sixth inning as a framing device, but actually, I think its more appropriate to look at Aaron Judge’s walk-off single.

Judge gets a 3-0 count, and there is a base open, albeit not first base. Still, the best player in baseball this year has a 3-0 count, and walking him does not end the game.

But if you walk him, intentionally or otherwise, right-handed Ryne Stanek must face left-handed Anthony Rizzo. Judge was just the second hitter Stanek saw, and he would have to stay in for at least one more. Stanek comes up in the zone, and, well, you know the rest.

You don’t really plan to score four runs in the ninth to win the game, but there’s very clearly been a plan in place for a number of years now, and its finally paying off with Rizzo. Since acquiring Giancarlo Stanton, the team has tried all manner of ways to fit a lefty in between Judge and G, precisely for moments like the ninth inning, where you can’t swap out relievers, the guy behind Judge offers a completely different look, and in short, you make the other team’s life harder.

They tried this with Brett Gardner, and the less said about that, the better. They’ve also tried putting Aaron Hicks in the third slot, and while he’s having an OK season, he’s not really someone I want in the top third of a World Series favorite’s lineup. To be fair, when the Yankees acquired Anthony Rizzo last year, I wasn’t really big on him being in the top third of a World Series contender’s lineup either.

And yet, he’s completed this transformation that ZiPS, at least, saw coming.

It’s funny when people talk about hitters making adjustments, they always mean that a guy’s shortenin’ up and takin’ what the pitcher gives him. Anthony Rizzo hasn’t done that at all, the exact opposite in fact. He’s committed entirely to hitting the ball in the air, to right field. This is a recipe for success at Yankee Stadium, and that focus is even clearer on his home/road splits.

Rizzo has become Mark Teixeria redux, hitting the ball over everyone, and it’s working. His 112 wRC+ on the road is pretty much exactly what he’s put up over the past two years, but his 160 at home is a direct byproduct of this approach. And he’s given the Yankees what they always wanted — a bona fide lefty threat to slot in between their power righties.

It’s funny that, at the deadline last year, I thought Rizzo’s role would be played by Joey Gallo. Obviously that hasn’t worked, but Rizzo is sort of the ideal version of Gallo. He doesn’t strike out as much, for sure, but he’s eschewed contact and certainly batting average, hunting the right field porch.

Research on lineup protection is always a little fuzzy — good players, playing on the same team, will produce good results, regardless of whether they’re hitting right behind each other or not. But in this specific context, you see why the Yankees have wanted a lefty hitter in between their two best sticks for so long. The question has always been getting the right left-handed hitter.

You leave runs on the table when Brett Gardner is hitting third. The Yankees really haven’t left many runs on the table with Rizzo batting third, and so much of it comes from him selling out for power. Who knows how much the threat of Rizzo’s lefty swing influenced the decision not to intentionally walk Aaron Judge on Thursday night, but Tony’s presence is proving the Yankees’ theory right, and makes them less and less vulnerable to the toughest relief pitching they’ll face in October.