The New York Yankees have played 49 games, and they have had to go through their fair share of troubles. They sit in third place in the American League, six games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the lead and three games behind the Baltimore Orioles. However, they once sat in last place after injuries and offensive struggles ran through the lineup like a virus.
Yet there was one player who was consistent through all of the lows, and that was Anthony Rizzo. After opting out of his contract and hitting the free agent market, the Yankees decided to re-sign the four-time Gold Glover instead of pursuing other options, though the first base free agent market wasn’t all that lucrative. But with the Yankees' struggles to hit the ball offensively and first basemen having a “better impact” than Rizzo at the time, the dialogue shifted (at least in some circles) towards blaming the front office for bringing him back in the first place during the 2021-22 offseason instead of pursuing someone like Matt Olson.*
*Freddie Freeman was also floated in these fan talks as a should-be replacement, but given the free agency saga around him ultimately came down to a decision of either returning to Atlanta or home to southern California, the Yankees were unlikely to ever be a fit.
The Oakland Athletics had all but signaled that they were going to begin a teardown after the 2021 campaign, and with an arbitration raise due to the slugging Olson, he was a lock to hit the trade market. The Braves ultimately acquired him and gave him an extension through 2029. Even if the two sides hadn’t agreed to that deal, any team that traded for Olson would have had him for two full seasons before hitting free agency at the end of 2023.
The Yankees didn’t end up making a trade for Olson (obviously), which meant that the onus was on Rizzo to perform well, which he has done. He slugged 32 homers with a 132 wRC+ in 130 games last year, and that was enough for him to feel comfortable opting out of the second year of his contract and re-upping on a new two-year deal.
Now in 2023, the two first basemen are almost neck and neck. Rizzo is slashing .302/.382/.525 with a wRC+ of 153, while Olson is sitting at .244/.375/.541 with a 145 wRC+. Additionally, Rizzo leads in fWAR at 1.7 compared to 1.4.
Obviously, the main difference between the slash lines is the batting average. Both first basemen are getting on base at a high level, and they’re both hitting the ball hard. However, the difference in batting average certainly contributes to the differentiation in wRC+ numbers. And that’s primarily because their BABIP numbers are also fairly different. While the top four first basemen in fWAR don’t have a BABIP below .335, Olson sits fifth with a .309, which is 36 points lower than Rizzo. Furthermore, Rizzo is striking out slightly above half the time that Olson is, and as an added bonus, he’s playing much better defense.
There were valid reasons for Yankees fans to want to trade for a talent like Olson. The dude can mash. He sits in the 100th percentile in max exit velocity and average exit velocity. He’s in the 98th percentile in barrel rate and the 97th percentile in hard-hit rate. He’s a very fun player who can generate results, and he also happens to be four and a half years younger than Rizzo. If the Yankees had acquired him, they could very well have extended him too, and the odds are solid that he’ll still be producing in a couple seasons, whereas the clock could be ticking on Rizzo as he enters his mid-30s.
However, there shouldn’t be any problems with the way the Yankees decided to go at the three-hole. Rizzo has been just as good, if not better, than some of the high-profile first basemen who were on the market for the Yankees to try and nab, and it might turn out to be a benefit that they’ve received Olson-esque production without surrendering prospects. The Yankees didn’t go the way that many fans wanted them to, but what Rizzo has brought to the field and what he has brought to the clubhouse shouldn’t be understated. He is a vital part of the team, and his consistency and leadership have been two qualities that the Yankees have desperately needed this season.
There’s no doubt that the man deserves props for the kind of career he has had in pinstripes since coming over from the Windy City, and any arguments that the Yankees should have gone with someone else are hard to validate.