Shift Happens, Anthony Rizzo is Unimpressed

Shift Happens, Anthony Rizzo is Unimpressed

Anthony Rizzo didn't launch any tape-measure bombs into the crisp Chicago air on Wednesday night, but his 4-for-5 performance at the plate in a 7-5 Cubs win over the Pittsburgh Pirates was exciting nonetheless. In addition to raising his batting average by nearly 80 points, this was Rizzo's 4th straight multi-hit game, a career best.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the feat was the fact that all 4 hits were to the opposite field, including a screaming double into the gap in left center that scored Emilio Bonifacio and Justin Ruggiano. He didn't let a flailing strikeout in the opening frame get him down, but rather, Rizzo's failure appeared to fuel him.

Unlike the times last year when the cornerstone corner infielder seemed to be pressing, his swings last night appeared to be nice and easy. Rather than trying to force things, he took what the pitchers gave and found holes in the defense.

Of course, those holes are easier to find when you can beat the shift, like Rizzo did with his final hit of the night, a double to shallow left that shot right through the evacuated spot at third base. But make no mistake, these weren't cheap hits; there were no duck snorts or seeing-eye singles to be found. Heck, I know guys who can't even go oppo in beer league softball, let alone in the majors.

I'm not going so far as to compare Rizz directly to The Splendid Splinter, but the great Ted Williams certainly faced more than a few defensive shifts in his storied career. Listen to what he once told Bob Costas about how he beat them:

I remember reading in Leigh Montville's "Ted Williams: Biography of an American Hero" about another shift-busting method The Kid used later in his career. Early in the season, Williams actually used a heavier bat, which caused his swing to be just slightly slower, helping him to drive the ball to left and left center.

Then, as teams started to play him straight up and the temperatures rose in the summer, he transitioned to a lighter stick and started pulling the ball again. If Rizzo can continue to burn the shift like he did last night, opposing defenses are going to have to be more honest with him, which will give him more room to his pull field.

Anthony Rizzo's hot start this season is welcome news to Cubs fans even if taken in a vacuum, but when combined with a resurgent Starlin Castro, it's starting to make Cubs fans feel great about more than just the minor leaguers again. Maybe Javy Baez will have to move off of SS after all.

The two highly-paid young guns aren't just putting up meaning numbers either; their hot bats are only part of what has been a pretty exciting offense over the past few games. Consider that through the first 5 games of the season, the Cubs had scored a total of only 8 runs, and had been shut out twice while hitting only 3 home runs.

In the 3 games since, the Cubs have scored 21 runs and have parked 4 balls in the yard. Two of those drives came from the aforementioned shortstop, a man whose recent struggles have been chronicled ad nauseam. The other 2 came Wednesday on back-to-back ABs from players whose lack of playing time has brought scrutiny to manager Ricky Renteria's platoons.

But with two outs in the 5th and Rizzo on first, Mike Olt deposited a Wandy Rodriguez pitch into the bleachers in left. Then Junior Lake stepped up and smoked a ball that left the yard and landed on Waveland before his flipped bat hit the dirt around home plate.

Now, at only 3-5, the Chicago Cubs aren't exactly setting the world on fire. But performances like those from Rizzo and Castro, not to mention unheralded pick-ups like Emilio Bonifacio (who's only batting .500 after a pedestrian 2-for-5 night at the plate), Ryan Kalish (Tom Loxas told you so!), and even the $6 Million Man, Jason Hammel, are actually starting to make the Cubs kinda fun again.

Okay, maybe I don't need to go putting the cart ahead of the horse quite yet. But despite some pretty lousy efforts out of the gate, this is starting to look like a team that has some personality and a little, dare I say, swagger. Now if they can just score some runs for Shark or buy Jose Veras some Rick Vaughn glasses.

The thing about good teams, or at least improving teams, is that the breaks go their way more often than not. That was certainly true for instant replay on Wednesday evening. Renteria got himself kicked out for arguing balls and strikes on Tuesday night, but correctly asked for a review of a bad call at first that was subsequently overturned, allowing another Cubs run to score.

The Cubs still don't have the makings of a playoff team, but they're certainly showing us that they have a core of young talent that will be around to drive the team to success in the not-so-distant future. Of course, we've still got 154 games left this season, so there's no need to go ga-ga over a mid-April contest.

But I still just can't help feeling that something is different about this team than those of the past couple of seasons. It's just, I don't know, more fun. Here's to hoping they keep that up, because I sure could get used to more nights like Wednesday.

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  • This is the stuff that gets you through a rebuild. This is phase 2, the building up to getting good. Rizzo and Castro back on track plus some other young players stepping up= people watch.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    I noticed a lot of empty seats in the park. Shouldn't you be a little more careful about affirming that those two wunderkinder are "back on track".
    8 games is hardly a good baseline. Why not wait until least 30?

    Mentioning the great Ted Williams in the same breath with Rizzo is preposterous, to say the least.

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    In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Rizzo had 4 hits last night and this was a direct reaction to that. I think I did more than a fair amount of tempering though.

    As for the Williams stuff, it's more a nod to his greatness than insinuating that Rizzo in anywhere near him. Rizzo is hitting through a shift, which is something Williams was forced to do. The 4-5 night going oppo was a great opportunity to invoke the strategies of a hitter who did that better than any other.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Its more what my eyes tell me. I see the difference. Besides, he mentioned the Williams thing in a reasonable context.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    You counter Tom's point about attendance with a one game sample size and then you criticize the excitement due to a "small baseline"? Everyone recognizes the small sample sizes. But it doesn't mean people can't project and forecast.

    If you read the article, Evan is not trying to compare Rizzo to Williams but rather use a top-level (i.e. very clear and understandable) example to show what positive things can happen when a player can seemingly conquer shifting.

    Your snarky, inefficient comment leaves a lot to be desired, to say the least.

  • In reply to Matt Mosconi:

    Nothing snarky about it. I saw Williams play and perhaps that's why I mind off-handed comparisons of any sort with a guy who has yet to hit his weight for a whole season.

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    In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I can understand you taking umbrage with someone making a direct comparison or saying that Rizzo is as good as Williams in any aspect of the game at this point. However, I felt that I was being fairly clear in saying that this was not a comparison of the two, but rather a circumstantial relation.

    Rizzo beat a shift on Wednesday night. Then I chose to share some information about how the game's greatest shift-buster went about it. Ted Williams is an all-time great, a man who refused to eject from his wounded fighter plane, choosing instead to crash-land it, knowing that an ejection would likely break both of his legs and end his baseball career. The man would have rather died that not be able to play baseball. His devotion to the science of hitting was incomparable, so to compare Rizzo to him outright would have been ludicrous.

    What I did was take a singular event, or series of smaller events, and use Rizzo's accomplishment last night to pay homage to a man many consider to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. So I understand your concern with a comparison, but I believe you're off base in your criticism.

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    I loved watching Rizzo last night; he was letting the game come to him and hitting his pitch to where the defenders weren't. It just looked like he was on another level, and he didn't even have to hit tape-measure shots to do it.

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    I can't find the excerpt from Montville, but in his book The Science of Hitting, Williams says:
    "My last really outstanding season was 1957, when, as an old man pushing 40, I hit .388 - a half dozen hits short of .400. In the spring that year I had used a little heavier bat, 34 1/2 ounces. I choked up on it about a quarter an inch and, boy, the balls were flying around, a lot of sharp hits, all over the lot.
    "I liked the bat so much I started the season with it, and right away I was getting hits into the spaces they opened up for me in left field when they used that tough shift. I wasn't getting around quite as fast with the heavier bat, but against the shift it was perfect.
    After a while, when they started to think - this guy's getting old, he can't pull anymore - and began spreading out more, I switched back to a lighter model. By the middle of the summer when I was always hitting well I was pulling them into right field again."

    I'm not sure whether Montville excerpted this for his own book or whether Williams shared this same stuff with him.

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    In reply to Evan Altman:

    Okay, found the exact text from Montville:
    “I picked up a 34 ½-ounce bat on the way north from spring training, a little heavier than what I had been using,” Williams explained. “I tried it out and, boy, I was ringing the ball with it. Boom, right through the middle. I said, ‘Hell, I’m going ot start the season with this bat.’ It was about two ounces heavier than the bat I normally used. It had iron in it. I started the season with it, and I never hit the ball consistently harder than that year.”
    The heavier bat stopped him from pulling the ball as often. As easly as the second game of the season, against the Yankees, bang, he had a hit to left gainst the shift, straight through the shortstop hole. Bang, another one. Next game, three for five. Bang. He used the bat through the spring, and soon the mouth-to-ear-to-mouth telegraph of pitchers and managers started to spread a new message: maybe Williams can’t get around on the fastball anymore. The shift started to be shifted back toward normal dimensions.
    “So when it gets warmer, I go back to a little lighter bat,” Williams said. “Where I hadn’t been getting hits between first base and second base, now I’m getting them. They couldn’t shift me so much and I’m going to pulling again. Balls are going through for me that hadn’t been going through for five or six years. This was the beginning of the breakthrough for me. This was the real secret of this year.”

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    This team is more fun because we are watching old, lake and kalish instead of lillibridge, McDonald, and Murphy. Plus Rizzo and Castro look to be starting to grow towards their potential. Much easier to watch the core developed than the old guard try to carry the te toward .500

  • IMO .500 is a pretty low bar for this team. They're not the Stros. The y should be much better than .500 this season or Epstoyer have to answer some questions. I don't expect them to contend yet , but I do expect better than .500. and so should all of us.

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    In reply to BLOOMIE1937:

    I respectfully disagree that .500 is a low bar, for a couple of reasons. 1) they don't necessarily have the talent to compete with the other teams in their own division, where they've got 3 2013 playoff teams and a Brewers squad that could be okay if Braun's thumb stays attached; 2) much of the talent they do have will likely be flipped at the deadline for more prospects, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Hammel isn't a long-term piece, Shark seems to have had one foot out the door since October of last year, and Barney and Nate may not be long for Chicago either.
    Also, finishing at or near .500 in MLB is an undesirable result; you neither make the playoffs nor get a good draft pick. This team is better and has potential stars, but they're a good year or two from being really competitive. But I fully believe that they can go from 90 losses to 90 wins in from one season to the next, maybe by next year.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    I'm starting to think that if the comparison is to Tribune ownership, Tribune comes off pretty good in getting 3 playoff appearances in the new millennium, including one time into the second round. If Lou could have only figured out that you don't pull your game one starter to save him for game 4 if the series could only go 3....

    Now the 2 of you are arguing between 66 and 80 wins.

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