SAN DIEGO – On some level, winning a Gold Glove can be about putting up enough offensive numbers to get people to notice your defense. Anthony Rizzo checks those boxes in the Triple Crown categories, hitting close to .300 and on pace to finish with 30-plus homers and around 115 RBI for a Cubs team owning the best record in baseball.
Rizzo returned to Petco Park on Monday – where he once bombed as the anticipated face-of-the-franchise replacement for Adrian Gonzalez – as a leading National League MVP candidate (while former University of San Diego star Kris Bryant is now the bigger story for the local media). If the Padres had questions about Rizzo’s upside and maturity – a front-office overhaul and an ownership sale ago – then his defensive evolution underscores his commitment to rounding out his entire game.
“Yeah, it’s something that all of us infielders are (thinking about),” Rizzo said. “None of us have cracked it yet. But we’re on our way.”
Joe Maddon is clearly biased, but the Cubs manager sees Rizzo as an obvious choice on a team now stocked with Gold Glove potential. As either the Tampa Bay Rays manager or a coach for the Anaheim/California Angels, Maddon has witnessed Gold Glove seasons from first basemen Carlos Pena, Darin Erstad and J.T. Snow.
“I know there’s a lot of pretty good defensive first basemen, but ‘Rizz’ is right at the top of the list for me,” Maddon said. “I’ve been around good first basemen, and he’s right up at the top of the list.”
Since future Cubs executives Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein engineered the Rizzo/Gonzalez trade between San Diego and the Boston Red Sox, the Padres used Brad Hawpe as an Opening Day first baseman in 2011 and got four underwhelming seasons out of Yonder Alonso before finding an interesting solution in Wil Myers, a converted outfielder and 2016 All-Star.
With a 9.3 Ultimate Zone Rating this year, Myers actually ranks ahead of Rizzo (3.9) in that FanGraphs metric. Rizzo leads all qualified NL first basemen in Defensive Runs Saved (nine) and Defensive WAR (0.2).
Rizzo also brings an ironman quality to a team that leads the majors in defensive efficiency, going 121-for-124 in games played so far and becoming a security blanket for an excellent left side of the infield (second-year players Bryant and Addison Russell) that has experienced some throwing issues.
Among NL first basemen, only Freddie Freeman (1,096 with the Atlanta Braves) and Paul Goldschmidt (1,074 with the Arizona Diamondbacks) have played more innings than Rizzo (1,047). MLB.com’s Range Factor lists Goldschmidt (9.63), Rizzo (9.26) and San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt (9.26) as the top three in that positional category.
Beyond the name recognition, Rizzo also has this year’s Derek Jeter catch/Rio Olympics tribute, making the balance-beam play on a foul ball at Wrigley Field last week and going viral on social media.
“He lives for those moments,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “When he sniffs that, he can’t wait to get up on that wall and do that.”