ANAHEIM, Calif. — On the final day of the 2013 season, Anthony Rizzo walked to the middle of the airplane, sat down next to coach Mike Borzello and started asking questions during the short flight from St. Louis to Chicago.
The Cubs had just absorbed their 96th loss, finishing 31 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and putting manager Dale Sveum on the hot seat. Rizzo doesn’t remember an exact moment or a specific conversation with Borzello, more of a growing curiosity during the final weeks of that lost season.
What do all these numbers mean? How would you pitch me? Could you break me down and put together a scouting report?
Rizzo won’t admit it now, but he must have felt like his head was spinning. That April saw Sveum mangle an answer about the accountability of the team’s core young players, casually threatening to send Rizzo and All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa.
This happened 22 days before the Cubs announced a seven-year, $41 million extension that cemented Rizzo as a face-of-the-franchise first baseman (and could grow to around $70 million with club options through 2021).
Once the Cubs landed at O’Hare Airport after Game 162, Sveum would meet Theo Epstein at Newport Bar & Grill, a dark, quiet spot along the Southport Corridor, and get fired over beers with the president of baseball operations.
The next day, Epstein sat in the old Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon and talked about a manager needing to show “love” before “tough love” and telling reporters: “We know what we’re doing here.”
Now that Las Vegas has the Cubs as a World Series favorite and Sports Illustrated put their star players on a baseball-preview cover, it’s easy to forget just how risky The Plan felt, all the anxieties and uncertainties in building The Foundation of Sustained Success.
This was sink-or-swim time for the front office’s golden boy, a player who probably felt untouchable and sometimes gave away at-bats, showing bad body language at the plate. But asking for help also showed a new level of maturity and self-awareness.
Breaking down Rizzo — to build him back up as a hitter — began with that in-flight moment somewhere high above Cubs-Cardinals territory.
Borzello, a Sveum hire, didn’t even know if he still had a job when he started to analyze Rizzo. The process took about two hours, one on Rizzo against right-handed pitchers and another looking at production versus lefties. They sat down together in a Wrigley Field clubhouse that had already been cleared out for winter.
Borzello — who’s worked for Sveum, Rick Renteria and Joe Maddon and now carries the title of catching/strategy coach — presented Rizzo with the one-page template the Cubs use in their scouting reports. There are no heat maps or spray charts or visual cues. Just a few quick-hit boxes highlighting what the video analysis and the numbers show.
“He saw all of his tendencies, his holes, his strengths, his weaknesses,” Borzello said. “A lot of hitters always wonder: ‘How is this team going to attack me?’ But it’s more than that: ‘Why are they going to attack you that way?’
“I can show you the way. I can show you why a team would do this, because this is what I would do to you. I showed him what options I have to get ahead. I showed him what options I have to finish him. I showed him where I’m going to stay away from.”
As bad as the Cubs were during those rebuilding years (286 losses and three fifth-place finishes between 2012 and 2014), Sveum’s gym-rat mentality and pitching coach Chris Bosio’s forceful personality had helped create a sophisticated game-planning system that gave the team a real edge.
Without it, the team you see on Monday night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim could have looked completely different. The Cubs constructed parts of the 2016 Opening Day roster through flip deals involving pitchers like Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija.
Building up and selling high on those assets yielded Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, promising shortstop Addison Russell and pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez.
Until Rizzo, Borzello never had a hitter ask for this kind of insight.
“There were some things he saw that he thought he was good at, but statistically they didn’t translate,” Borzello said. “I asked him questions about a certain pitch: ‘What do you think about this pitch? This is something I would use against you.’
“He says: ‘I feel like I see that pitch pretty good.’ I (told him): ‘Yeah, you do, but you don’t hit it. You don’t do anything with it. You may make contact. But it’s not enough hard-hit rate and there’s no damage.’
“He kind of saw who he was as a hitter.”
Borzello’s godfather is Joe Torre, and that Hall of Fame connection guided his career. His dad grew up with Torre in Brooklyn, and Borzello wound up winning four World Series rings as a staffer with the New York Yankees between 1996 and 2000.
Borzello followed Torre to the Los Angeles Dodgers and worked four seasons as their bullpen catcher. Borzello saw how Manny Ramirez would sequester himself in the video room and change the dynamic of the 2008 team that swept the Cubs out of the playoffs. This entire system is rooted in that West Coast experience, when Borzello studied closely with Brad Ausmus, the veteran catcher and future Detroit Tigers manager.
Borzello debriefed Rizzo after each of the last three seasons, and it’s grown to the point where he broke down almost all of the team’s hitters at the end of 2015.
Where Borzello and Mike Mussina used to review homemade scouting reports in The Bronx, the game is now flooded with Big Data. As Maddon likes to say, all the shiny new toys benefit pitching and defense. The Cubs feel like they should know the answers before they ever take the test.
“We know what you’re good at and what you aren’t good at,” Borzello said. “Now if we can execute and attack your weaknesses — and you make adjustments to close those holes — then I got to adjust again. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. There are some hitters where the BATS (video) system gets them.
“They come up — and they come up hot — and we don’t know them yet. But once we figure them out, they come, and then they go. They’re gone.”
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Looking in the mirror
There is a mythology surrounding Rizzo and the executives who drafted him for the Boston Red Sox, engineered the Adrian Gonzalez trade with the San Diego Padres and re-acquired him in the Andrew Cashner deal before the 2012 season.
Rizzo and his family did develop a strong bond with Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod as a Red Sox prospect who got such good care at Massachusetts General Hospital and beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That experience drives Rizzo to make so many appearances at Lurie Children’s Hospital off Michigan Avenue, the kind of regular visitor who still remembers a patient’s name when the kid throws out the first pitch at Wrigley Field.
The narrative also ignores a far more complex person and the real questions inside the organization about how Rizzo would respond after a down year in 2013, whether he would feel hungry or entitled.
“He’s a human being,” Epstein said. “There’s always been things that weren’t perfect that we figured would evolve as he grew older and go one direction or another.
“Just like with everybody else. It’s not like the guy’s perfect. None of us are.
“There’s been a real transition with him going from someone who was super-talented — and that was good enough to let the talent carry him and being comfortable with being good — to someone who’s now very intentional, both individually and as a team, about going from good to great.”
Rizzo doesn’t think he had a bad year in 2013, pointing out how his extra-base hits that year (65) measure up to what he produced during his All-Star seasons in 2014 (61) and 2015 (72).
As Sveum likes to say, the numbers don’t lie. Rizzo’s OPS against left-handers has surged from .624 to .928 to .881 across the last three years. Where the on-base percentage dipped to .323 in 2013, Rizzo’s gotten on base almost 39 percent of the time in each of the last two seasons.
The data confirmed what Rizzo already noticed — that teams kept pounding him inside and getting ahead 0-1. Borzello freely admits he is not a hitting coach — and that it takes an elite talent to be able to apply what you see in a scouting report — and points to Eric Hinske adding another piece to the puzzle.
Rizzo gravitated toward Hinske when he joined the coaching staff for the 2014 season. This was another big left-handed hitter who played on World Series winners with the 2007 Red Sox and 2009 Yankees and wasn’t far removed from the action.
Hinske suggested crowding the plate — to turn the count 1-0 in your favor and start taking control of the at-bat. That led to Rizzo getting hit by 30 pitches last season, leading the majors in that category and ultimately becoming a far more dangerous hitter.
Sveum — who felt like the Cubs kept watching the same at-bat over and over again in 2013 — credited Rizzo for looking in the mirror and growing up into a 31-homer, 101-RBI force.
“You have to have the player evaluate himself,” said Sveum, the Kansas City Royals hitting coach now credited with helping that homegrown core become World Series champions. “Go on the BATS machine: ‘Look, how would you pitch yourself?’
“Learn from that. Obviously, Rizzo made some huge adjustments. Even that first year I was there, he lowered his hands and he lowered his swing path.
“But he was able to do it. Hey, you suggest a lot of things to people and they can’t do it. So you have to give credit.”
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This became the wacky sing-along moment from Camp Maddon: Rizzo playing the piano — Adele’s “Hello” and Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” — in front of his teammates near the end of spring training.
That postcard from Arizona missed the larger point, because the Cubs had just walked out of a meeting with Michael Jordan’s personal trainer in the theater room of their Mesa complex.
Rizzo read Tim Grover’s book — “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable” — and started communicating with him on Twitter. Rizzo asked Epstein if the Cubs could arrange for Grover — a longtime NBA figure who runs the Attack Athletics facility on Chicago’s West Side — to address the team.
“Rizz has already finished (fourth) in the MVP (voting),” Epstein said. “But he wants to get to the next level. And more importantly, he really wants to (take us) to the next level: Show up every single day. Don’t play .500 for three months and then turn it on.
“Three years ago, I think he would have been good enough saying: ‘Hey, I’m going to get my hits, be part of a good team, let’s see how things go this year.’
“Now I think he’s really aware of that next step and being intentional about how to — as a leader — help bring the group there.”
Rizzo is not a natural born leader. But he stood up for his team in 2014, looking into the dugout and basically challenging the Cincinnati Reds to a fight after Aroldis Chapman buzzed two 100-mph pitches near the head of Nate Schierholtz.
Rizzo also changed the attitude around this team by guaranteeing a division title leading into last year’s Cubs Convention. Winning 97 games and two playoff rounds validated what he saw coming through the darkness.
“He is growing into that position,” Maddon said. “I thought there was a lot of undue expectation put on him last year about being a team leader (when) he (was) 25 going on 26. Let the guy grow up a little bit. Let him get his feet underneath him and he will grow into that position.
“He’s being nurtured properly. He’s being raised properly. We have the right pack of wolves out there to bring him on up.”
Rizzo is kind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He might be the last guy to show up at the ballpark, wearing sweatpants and looking like he just woke up from a nap. But that’s because he’s already finished his workouts that day, either at Chicago’s East Bank Club or a gym on the road with strength and conditioning coach Tim Buss.
The same DJ who turns the postgame clubhouse into a Miami nightclub is willing to dive anywhere to catch a foul ball.
“He’s a super-casual, easy-going guy,” Epstein said. “The evolution is now he knows how and when to be intense in an intentional way to help pull guys to the next level.”
Rizzo is clearly a deeper thinker than some of his “it’s just baseball” answers to postgame questions from the reporters surrounding his locker. But he also has a unique ability to block out all the voices in his head suggesting mechanical adjustments — and simply focus on the next pitch instead of where to hold his hands in the batter’s box.
“When you’re going through ruts, it’s not easy,” Rizzo said. “But, really, at the end of the day, I always tell myself that I’ve been able to hit my entire life.
“It doesn’t matter how I’m standing. If I’m standing with my back towards the pitcher, once he’s ready to throw the ball, then I’m ready to hit.”
That’s Rizzo at his core, supremely confident and ferociously competitive, not content to put up pretty good numbers for an OK team, expecting to be a great player when the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908.
“No doubt,” Rizzo said.