Bryce Harper is rightfully going to be at the forefront of the National League Most Valuable Player conversation. With statistics that belong in a video game and a performance at the plate that rivals Barry Bonds’ most (in)famous seasons, Harper’s seemingly obvious place as the award winner is only held back by one enormous elephant in the room: His team’s overall performance.
Enter Anthony Rizzo. The Chicago Cubs’ first baseman has a candidacy that has emerged from the not-so-distant background; suddenly in sharp, electric focus instead of a bunch of blurred lines, Rizzo is the ignitor that has lit the Cubs’ bright blue flame all season long. And in a season where prognosticators, fans and seemingly everyone else thought the Cubbies were a year away from doing something really special, Rizzo and Co. have the Chicago Express pulling into Wrigley Field right on schedule.
Perhaps the most unknown superstar in the game of baseball—which is really saying something considering how criminally under-marketed some of the game’s top players are—Rizzo sets the tone on both sides of the baseball that has thrived in the Joe Maddon era. On pace to set career-high marks in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, runs and hits, Rizzo has already tripled his stolen base output and set a new mark in the RBI category. As impressive as his individual performance has been, Rizzo’s role as the anchor of this Cubs team is the most notable achievement he’ll unlock in all of 2015.
It’s been Rizzo’s job to be a constant for an inexperienced, unproven team facing a mountain of expectations. That type of role is a lot of pressure for any player to take on, let alone a 26-year-old who was anything but proven as a superstar.
Although Rizzo’s individual performance has fallen off slightly in the second half, his team is surging toward a playoff berth while Harper’s struggles to remain relevant. The fuel is being poured on Rizzo’s MVP fire while water is being doused on Harper’s. The narrative surrounding each team is a driving component behind this, and it’s one reason that professional sports would be wise to consider a “Best Player Award” and “Most Valuable Player Award” going forward. The criteria for MVP is nebulous, almost always self-defined and rarely viewed through the same lens.
In August, ESPN’s David Schoenfield wrote on Rizzo’s impact in baseball’s current landscape:
Rizzo is a rarity these days: a power hitter who averages fewer than one strikeout per game. Among the 58 hitters with at least 15 home runs, the only ones with a lower strikeout rate are Buster Posey, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Only six of Rizzo’s home runs have come with two strikes*, as he does his damage early in the count. In fact, what’s interesting is that Rizzo isn’t a great two-strike hitter, ranking just 47th among qualified hitters in two-strike wOBA; but with one strike or no strikes, he’s hitting .387 and ranks seventh in wOBA. So you can try and get ahead of Rizzo with a fastball, but you better spot it in the right place: He has the sixth-best wOBA in the majors against fastballs.
*Editor’s note: it’s actually five
In a season filled with questions and packed with uncertainties, Rizzo has provided answers in the form of production. While some will attempt to convince an evaluator that all performances are created on equal grounds over the course of 162 games, that’s just not the case when factoring in things that can’t be defined through metrics or measures.
Rizzo having this season last year or any time prior wouldn’t be felt with this weight, this impact or reach this audience. The fact that he’s been able to do it on this stage speaks volumes in a season where Maddon was brought in to run the show, Jon Lester, MLB’s most prized free agent, picked the Cubs as a premier destination and Kris Bryant’s debut lit up Chicago in a way that relish on a Chicagoan separates it from the rest of the pack.
Rizzo has helped to take the pressure off of others when those players were brought in to help take the pressure off of him. Serving as the face of Chicago’s turnaround, as he’s been with the team since 2012, Rizzo will undoubtedly be unafraid to show his emotion if and when the Cubbies have their postseason berth locked up.
For now, Rizzo will continue to let his play do the talking, but when everyone stops and stares back at the 2015 season while remembering it for different moments, they’ll recall Rizzo as the face of a team being rescued from obscurity, a future with seemingly no ceilings and a road ahead that will bring the sun out in the cold Chicago winters.
Most Valuable Player, indeed.