clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What’s behind Anthony Rizzo’s recent struggles?

Was it the neck injury, or did the slide start prior to the collision with Fernando Tatis Jr.?

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Yankees are on the brink of winning none of their last four series, and the disappearance of the offense is the chief culprit. They’ve scored three or fewer runs in six of the last nine contests, dating back quite tellingly to Aaron Judge’s collision with the bullpen gate at Dodger Stadium. Obviously losing his presence leaves an MVP-sized hole in the offense’s capacity to score, but it’s far from the only explanation.

When the Yankees were rolling in the month of May, Judge was just one of a handful of consistent contributors in the lineup. That the bats around him have dried up in his absence deserves equal if not more blame, with perhaps no offensive downturn more pronounced that that from Anthony Rizzo.

After starting the season off on a searing hot pace — .310/.388/.533 with 11 home runs, 29 RBI, and a 157 wRC+ in his first 48 games — Rizzo’s bat has gone ice cold. In his last 16 games totaling 66 plate appearances, Rizzo is slashing .131/.197/.148 with just one extra-base hit, six RBI, and a -3 wRC+.

Many will point to his brief injury absence as the onset of the slump. Rizzo was pulled from the Yankees’ May 28th game against the Padres with a neck injury after Fernando Tatis Jr. ran into him at first base and missed the next three games. However, several signs indicate that the slide started up to a week before the collision.

During this 16-game slide, Rizzo has seen a sharp increase in strikeouts while the walks have dried up. When you’re making worse swing decisions, your contact quality will suffer as well. Exit velocity is down slashing his hard-hit rate in half. He’s batting the ball within an idealized launch angle range on far fewer occasions after placing in the top-three league-wide through the first two months. He’s lost over 10 points off his line drive rate, most of those turning into grounders and weak flyballs.

A look at the rolling graphs for this handful of stats helps us visualize the progression of Rizzo’s season, and they all tell the same story.

Here’s expected wOBA:

Average exit velocity:

Hard-hit rate:

Sweet-spot rate:

Strikeout rate:

Walk rate:

Right around the 140 batted ball mark — roughly his 200th plate appearance — his performance at the plate took a nosedive. This coincides with the May 24th game against the Orioles, a day after a three-hit performance in the series opener which as it happens was the last time he barreled a baseball. Zero barrels in the intervening 16 games is alarming and best captures the crux of Rizzo’s issues.

Still, I think it’s fair to question whether the neck injury accelerated if not exacerbated the problems at the plate. Pitchers aren’t attacking him all that different from a usage standpoint — if anything they are finding a bit more success landing the fastball above rather than in the top-half of the strike zone. To that end, perhaps a look at his swing mechanics pre- and post-injury might reveal a deficit preventing him from getting back to his best.

Here’s a middle-middle hanging slider in a 1-2 count from Griffin Canning on April 19th:

Compare that with this swing against a similar center-cut slider from Justin Verlander on June 14th:

Both swings are in two-strike counts. By now, Yankees fans are familiar with Rizzo choking up on the bat with two strikes. However, there are a few other subtler adjustments he makes in those situations, typically flattening out his swing and staying with an up-the-middle approach rather than try to get out in front to access his power. I’ve created freeze-frames from two different points during the swings, at contact and the finish, to highlight the differences between Rizzo’s mechanics before injury and since his return.

First, the point where he makes contact with either pitch:

On the opposite-field single against Canning, we see how determined he is to stay behind and inside the ball, keeping his shoulders and front hip closed for as long as possible. On the flyout against Verlander, he’s fired his front shoulder and hip a lot earlier, causing him to be around the baseball rather than through it, also resulting in the ball making contact closer to the label and away from the barrel.

Next, let’s take a look at the finishes of each swing:

Obviously, the finishes for an inside-out swing versus a pull swing are going to be different, but what I want to pay special attention to is the positioning of his hands and head. Look at the shoulder-height finish and the way the bat wraps around his back on the hit vs. Canning, whereas facing Verlander, his hands finish high and away from his body as he tries to manufacture lift. Similarly, he keeps his head down through the finish in the left image versus lifting up and back into the lean.

These are just two swings, but perhaps we are starting to see how a neck injury might exert its influence on swing mechanics. Neck pain can create a bunch of stiffness and inflexibility from the shoulders up, so maybe his way of compensating for that is clearing his front side early to free up room for his head and neck. Contrast that with the pre-injury swing, when he’s really able to keep his head down on the ball through contact even with shoulders, arms, and torso rotating underneath.

There’s no guarantee that Rizzo’s June struggles are the result of his neck injury. As we’ve learned, many of the metrics started to go south in the games leading up to the Padres series. Whatever the case, the Yankees need him to rediscover his form if they’re going to have any chance of treading water in Judge’s continued absence.