Could Anthony Rizzo Become The Cubs’ Greatest First Baseman?

Tasos Katopodis

The Cubs have never really had a franchise first baseman. Perhaps now, they do.

Close your eyes and picture a first baseman. (Really, go ahead, it’s fine. I’ll wait). Perhaps you imagined a specific player, saw Lou Gehrig in pinstripes, tortured yourself with a Cardinals-era Albert Pujols or Mark McGwire, or winced at the thought of Frank Thomas on the South Side. Perhaps you thought less specifically, and just pictured a tall, burly man in uniform, one foot on the bag, stretching for a throw from the shortstop.

If you tried this experiment with fans of each team, asking them about a first baseman that meant the most to their organization, you’d get different responses. Yankees fans would see Gehrig or Don Mattingly. Reds fans might be nostalgic for Tony Perez or point to present-day slugger Joey Votto. Some would picture Jimmie Foxx, others Eddie Murray. If you asked about the Cubs specifically, some might think for a moment and then ask, "Mark Grace?" It’s hard to pinpoint the Cub who was the quintessential franchise first baseman. Incredibly enough for a team whose history goes back to 1876, none of Grace’s predecessors, nor Grace himself, really fit the mold of the MVP-level first baseman with the big bat. The Cubs are long overdue; now it’s Anthony Rizzo’s turn to compete for the title.

The team’s latest first baseman doesn’t have much to complete with in terms of history. The candidates for the Cubs’ franchise first baseman are a weak lot, surprising given the many Hall of Famers the team can boast at other positions. Cap Anson is the Cubs’ all-time WAR leader at first base, but given his era (1871-1897), his accomplishments have to be taken with a grain of salt. The game was primitive back then, evolving; at times there was no official strike zone, batters could call for high or low pitches, and certain foul bunts would count as hits. Sometimes Anson would switch batters boxes as the pitch was being delivered in order to intimidate and confuse the pitcher, a tactic which today would undoubtedly result in an unpleasant injury, at the very least, after taking a 100-mile-per-hour Aroldis Chapman fastball to the face. Anson was certainly a great hitter in his time, but the game wasn’t the same, and in any case he was a racist fool and a player whose antics made Old Hoss Radbourn seem classy.

Some of you are already screaming at your computer screen, saying, "ERNIE BANKS IS A HALL OF FAMER, CEE," so I’ll clear that one up now: Banks is in the Hall of Fame, was a remarkable player, and in terms of games played, first base was his primary position. However, his best performances came when he was a shortstop, not a first baseman. As a shortstop he was an amazing slugger who hit .292/.355/.561, good enough to win two MVP awards despite the team being nowhere near the pennant race (there’s still hope for you, Mike Trout). As a first baseman, he hit .259/.307/.447 with a heavy reliance on Wrigley Field, and no one thought of him as an MVP anymore. Consider: concurrent with Banks’ first base years, Donn Clendenon hit .277/.329/.442 in tougher parks, and no one thinks of him as a Hall of Famer. Perhaps we can half-count Banks, but if I asked you to close your eyes and imagine a shortstop the way I did with first base, I imagine most of you would see him there, not at first.

Mark Grace was the Cubs’ best modern first baseman, with a career WAR of 41.1 with the team. He was a fine hitter and fielder, but lacked the power that’s traditionally associated with the position, averaging just 12 home runs a season. His output was more like that of a very good second baseman, and though he spent most of his Cubs career hitting third or fourth, that was mostly because of the lineups that surrounded him—he was better suited to be a leadoff or number-two hitter. Other possibilities include Phil Cavarretta, Frank Chance, Derrek Lee, Bill Buckner, and Leon Durham. All of them were often good and sometimes great, but for various reasons can be disqualified as the franchise player who should be bronzed outside of the Friendly Confines. That’s what makes Anthony Rizzo so exciting: Finally, the Cubs could have their guy.

It’s premature to crown Rizzo as the organization’s best first baseman, of course, but of all the players to man the position in the last several years, he certainly has the most potential. It’s obviously hard to say resolutely how good Rizzo will be given he has less than a full season of major league experience, but there are plenty of indicators that he’ll develop into a good first baseman, someone that Theo Epstein can see as part of the organization’s core.

I wish we could fast-forward several seasons and see what Rizzo (or any prospect for that matter) will look like in the future, but given what we’ve seen so far, it’s likely he’ll continue to have sharp defense at first, perhaps of Gold Glove caliber, continue to make good contact in the zone (and continue to shed his eagerness to swing at junk, too), and most importantly, continue to hit for power.

The difficulty with assessing Rizzo isn’t just that he’s been streaky at times, but that his results have so often been distorted by the environments in which he’s played. Rizzo showed some power in the Red Sox organization, but it wasn’t until he arrived at Triple-A Tucson with the Padres in 2011 that he really exceeded expectations, hitting .331/.404/.652, with 26 home runs. Tucson is a such a hitter-friendly environment that it seems almost unfair to promote players from that bandbox to Petco Park, a park where Rizzo found out first-hand it’s nearly impossible to hit for power. He hit .141/.281/.242 with just one home run with the Padres, such a poor debut that it (along with the presence of Yonder Alonso and Kyle Blanks) prompted his trade to the Cubs. Realistically, the hope was that Rizzo’s true ability would fall somewhere between the two Tucson and San Diego extremes, and that’s why his .285/.342/.463 with 15 home runs in 87 games for the Cubs this season was cause for celebration.

The Cubs have been in desperate need for that kind of production from any player, but especially from a left-handed hitter. For reasons that are fairly inexplicable, the Cubs have lacked largely been without power from the left side of the plate since Billy Williams left town after the 1974 season. Since then, the Cubs have only had nine seasons where a lefty hit 25 or more home runs, tied for seventh-least in the majors. Additionally, power at first base has always been a problem for the Cubs. They’ve only had 10 seasons since 1901 in which their first baseman hit more than 25 home runs, eighth-worst in the majors (including the more recent expansion teams). Aside from Derrek Lee (46 home runs in 2005, 35 in 2009, 32 in 2004), and Ernie Banks (37 home runs in 1962, 32 in 1968) they haven’t had consistent high-level power from any player at the position. Rizzo can end both of these problems himself, a step in the right direction to balance out the lineup.

Rizzo is already a good hitter, but he’s still young and has some growing to do. The best part is that the changes he needs require the refinement of his approach rather than a complete overhaul of his swing. His potential evolution is about making a good hitter an even better one. That’s something that often takes years -- but not always. Rizzo has the typical left-handed hitter’s platoon issues, doing his best hitting against right-handed pitchers, and will need to improve against lefties (.208/.243/.356 in a small-sample 107 plate appearances in 2012). He’s already working on patience at the plate, having cut his strikeout rate from 30.1 percent to 16.8 percent, the latter below league average (20.2 percent). He still swings at a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone and could probably walk more, but many of these things are likely to improve with experience and pitchers’ increasing respect. Rizzo’s biggest need, if he’s going to be a consistent power hitter, is to reduce his ground-ball rate, which is currently 45.5 percent, just below the league average of 47.4 percent (while a few of 2012’s top sluggers had a higher ground-ball rate, including Mike Trout and Robinson Cano, most hit fewer grounders.) While there’s room for improvement, he was still the second-best hitter in the Cubs lineup behind Alfonso Soriano this season, and it seems likely Rizzo could surpass him next year.

As an added bonus, Rizzo isn’t just a bat. He’s an upgrade defensively over others they’ve played at the position in recent years, perhaps even Gold Glove winners Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee — UZR seems to think so. When it comes to franchise first basemen we probably don’t immediately think of defense, but Rizzo’s ability to field (7.3 UZR this season) is just another asset for long-term stability at the position.

It’s easy to understand why the organization and fans feel so invested in Rizzo and are cautiously optimistic after 87 games. Whether they’ve realized it or not, there’s a lot riding on his ability to turn into the franchise first baseman they’ve so desperately longed for to strengthen the team’s core on a rebuilding team with young talent. Despite the tiny ballpark giving the illusion of a team offense, it really hasn’t been there in many seasons; adding a good hitter at first is the most obvious place to get it. Hopefully, 20 years from now, if someone asks you to close your eyes and picture the Cubs’ greatest first baseman, you will almost unanimously see Rizzo.

Thanks to Steven Goldman for research assistance.

Cee Angi is one of SB Nation’s Designated Columnists, one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage, and the author of Baseball-Prose. Follow her at @CeeAngi.

But wait! There's more!

In this article we talk a lot about iconic first basemen, the level of production that accompanies them, and how the Cubs haven’t had many seasons at that level. But what is a franchise season by a first baseman? There is no official definition, but try this one on for size: Since World War II, 21 Most Valuable Player awards have been voted to first basemen. As a group, those first basemen hit roughly .329/.420/.596. Now, that’s a crazy season and it would be unfair to ask a first baseman to meet that standard year after year, but how about 90 percent of that standard? That would be a still-lofty .296/.378/.536. Here is the Cubs’ total number of such seasons since 1901 (450 plate appearance minimum) and ranking among the other franchises:

Team

Years

1B with most seasons

  1. Cardinals

21

Albert Pujols, 6

  1. Yankees

16

Lou Gehrig, 13

  1. Red Sox

14

Mo Vaughn, 5

  1. Tigers

11

Hank Greenberg, 5

  1. White Sox

10

Frank Thomas, 5

  1. Browns/Orioles

10

George Sisler, 3

  1. Athletics

9

Jimmie Foxx, 6

  1. Reds

9

Ted Kluszewski/Joey Votto, 3

  1. Rockies

8

Todd Helton, 6

  1. Astros

7

Jeff Bagwell, 5

  1. Indians

6

Hal Trosky, 4

T12. Cubs

5

Derrek Lee, 2

T12. Dodgers

5

Jacques Fournier, 3

T12. Giants

5

Bill Terry, 2

Five teams have never had a first baseman produce a season of this quality; another seven have had just one. All but two of them (the Pirates and Twins) are expansion teams.

Perhaps expecting even a franchise’s all-time best first baseman to maintain this level is asking too much. We could drop the requirement to 85 percent of the MVP level, which would take us down to .280/.357/.507. Alas, such a change does not help the Cubs; they add three more seasons at the required level, but other teams add more (for example, the Giants pick up another 18 seasons), so they drop from 13th to 17th. — Steven Goldman

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