Once upon a time, Anthony Rizzo was one of the league’s premier first basemen, a centerpiece of a young Cubs team that won their first World Series in over a century and looked poised to become baseball’s next great dynasty. While the latter didn’t happen, it wasn’t Rizzo’s fault: from 2016 to 2019, he posted a .285/.389/.510 slash line, and his 136 wRC+ and 16.2 fWAR ranked fourth and third among the league’s first basemen.
Rizzo, unfortunately, is no longer that player. Since coming over to the Yankees at the 2021 trade deadline, his 127 wRC+ is 10th among first basemen, and his 2.9 fWAR ranks 16th. Despite all this, his presence cannot be understated, as his power lefty bat, defensive prowess at first base, and veteran leadership have made him both a fan and clubhouse favorite and an integral part of the 2023 Yankees.
2022 Statistics: 130 games, 548 PA .224/.338/.480, 32 HR, 21 2B, 75 RBI, 132 wRC+, 18.4 K%, 10.6 BB%, 2.4 fWAR, 2.3 bWAR
2023 ZiPS Projections: 129 games, 536 PA, .236/.343/.438, 23 HR, 21 2B, 72 RBI, 125 wRC+, 17.5 K%, 10.1 BB%, 2.4 fWAR
Trying to project how Anthony Rizzo, who turns 34 this coming August, will play this year is a bit of a fool’s errand. Last season, he showed that, when healthy, he still ranks among the league’s better first basemen. His 25 home runs over the first four months of the season trailed only Pete Alonso among players at the position, and his 142 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR each ranked ninth.
Back spasms and epidural-induced headaches, however, forced him to miss time in the second half, and his performance at the plate suffered as well. In August and September, he slashed just .211/.308/.414 and hit just 7 long balls in 35 games (146 PA), his wRC+ dropped to 108 (13th among first basemen), and he accrued just 0.2 fWAR (19th). While he wasn’t a black hole in the lineup, he wasn’t providing anywhere near the level of production the Yankees needed from him. Still, Rizzo did enough to earn a fresh two-year deal after opting out of his initial contract.
Now, Rizzo will again look to slot right into the middle of the Yankees lineup. Much like he did last season, he’s primarily slotted into the third spot in the order this spring, sandwiched between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton when the Yankees have used something that resembles an Opening Day lineup. If he can hit his 2022 marks again, he’ll be an important anchor in the lineup and provide vital protection for Judge. And although at his age, regression can happen at any point — Josh Donaldson’s 2021 Statcast data was pretty good, after all — his Statcast data shows that he’s not due for any luck-related regression.
Indeed, with the new rule restricting extreme defensive shifts, Rizzo may even see positive regression, as he saw shifts on over 80 percent of the time last year. One other note: Outs Above Average is not fond of Rizzo’s glovework, but the comfort that infielders clearly feel in throwing to him cannot be ignored. He snatches up nearly everything that heads his way.
Of course, none of this matters if Rizzo can’t stay on the field, or worse, struggles while on the field due to injuries. Already this spring, Rizzo has missed time due to a “cranky” back, something that the first baseman has said that he will need to manage for the rest of his career. So long as the Yankees can keep Rizzo healthy by finding DH time and full days off on a regular basis, he should be a key piece in the Bombers lineup and a critical part of their success in 2023.