After ending April on a three-game losing streak, the Yankees have been solid in May, holding their own in tough intra-divisional matchups against the Rays and Blue Jays and taking series against the weak A’s and Guardians. A lot of that has been due to the resurgence of Anthony Rizzo, the one constant presence in the middle of the Yankees’ order this season.
Through Wednesday’s games, Rizzo stood as the ninth-best hitter in the league in May wOBA, minimum 50 plate appearances, with a .432 mark. For Rizzo himself, that would mark the eighth-best monthly wOBA (again, min. 50 PAs) in his illustrious career. The question is, is he achieving that number through different means this time?
Speculation abounded in the offseason about how the shift ban might impact the Yankees’ first baseman. Last year, according to Statcast, 82.6 percent of Rizzo’s plate appearances came against the shift, the ninth-highest rate among hitters with at least 500 trips to the plate. Sure enough, this year Rizzo has posted his highest wOBA — .372 — on pulled grounders and line drives since 2016, back before teams began deploying the shift in earnest.
At the same time, Rizzo has only pulled 46.5 percent of his grounders and line drives this season, the third-lowest rate of his career and lowest since 2019. Overall, he’s only pulled 36.8 percent of his balls in play, the absolute lowest rate of his career. Rather than consciously trying to pull more balls now that the shift is gone, Rizzo has simply been able to relax in the box like he used to before the shift ever appeared. In an interview with the New York Post last month, Rizzo described the ban as “refreshing” and one less thing to worry about when he’s not feeling “mechanically right.”
Even though the slugger recognized he couldn’t hit the ball the other way on the ground through sheer will, saying “I wish I could,” the fact that the left side of the infield was wide open clearly weighed on his mind. Perhaps it even caused him to become over-eager and roll over some balls to the right side, achieving the opposite of the desired effect.
This year, he’s been pulling fewer balls, yes, but also rolling over fewer than ever before. His 28 percent groundball rate is his lowest by more than five percent. Where have all those grounders gone? Rizzo’s 28.8 percent line-drive rate is his highest since 2019. Shift or no shift, it’s almost always better to hit a liner than a grounder. In his career, Rizzo has a .710 wOBA on liners and a .180 on grounders. This year, his wOBA on grounders has jumped to .254, but that’s still nothing next to his .668 mark on line drives. Of all years, this might technically be the worst one to trade grounders for line drives, but that swap is still clearly a net positive.
This version of Rizzo has turned back the clock, with his best wOBA and wRC+ (which adjusts for offensive environment) since 2014. His shift-ban-fueled changes seem sustainable too, and with Aaron Judge back from injury and Giancarlo Stanton not far behind, lineup protection should help to ensure the first baseman’s production going forward. Whether that will be enough to sustain the Yankees with the enduring holes in their lineup and rotation remains to be seen, but at least the veteran Rizzo can be counted on.