How Cubs broke down Anthony Rizzo and built him back up


How Cubs broke down Anthony Rizzo and built him back up

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.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein ready to make the big deal when Cubs need pitching]

Big Data

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.”

[MORE CUBS: What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets]

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.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get an Anthony Rizzo jersey right here]


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.

There's more change coming for the Cubs this offseason, but in what form?

There's more change coming for the Cubs this offseason, but in what form?

David Kaplan said it best on the most recent CubsTalk Podcast:

"I think it's gonna be the most impactful offseason since Theo and Jed have been here."

He's not wrong, which is saying something given the Cubs have had plenty of impactful offseasons in the tenure of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. This is a group that added Joe Maddon and Jon Lester ahead of the 2015 season and then the next winter, added Jason Heyward and surprised everybody by bringing back Dexter Fowler a couple days into 2016 spring training.

Anytime a team sets World Series or bust expectations and instead is going home just one day into the MLB postseason, change is coming. That may be especially true with HOW the Cubs got knocked out — leading the division and boasting the best record in the National League from the All-Star Break all the way through Game 162...yet they didn't even make it to the NLDS.

It's impossible to predict exactly what changes will be coming for the Cubs because as of this writing, three teams still remain and some of the winter's biggest names (Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel) have yet to begin their offseason. There's still so much that can change even before free agency opens.

So if you're looking for a bunch of predictions or projections about what is going to happen in the Cubs world this winter, you're in the wrong spot. But here's where change MAY take place over the next couple months:

Coaching staff

We'll start with the area that will probably have a resolution the soonest. Teams typically prefer to have their coaching staff settled as early as possible into the offseason so they can fill out the roster from there. An added bonus is the new coaches can start reaching out to players on the roster earlier in the offseason if they choose to, as well.

With the Cubs coaching staff, there very well may be more shakeup coming this fall even after Chili Davis was let go last week. All we know for certain is Anthony Iapoce will be the team's new hitting coach in 2019 on Joe Maddon's staff. Beyond that, the Cubs have not publicly confirmed that Jim Hickey or any the other coaches will 100 percent be back next spring. 


There's a potential the Cubs' 2019 Opening Day lineup will be far different from not only the 2018 Opening Day lineup, but also even the NL Wild-Card lineup. 

Like their fans, the Cubs were unhappy with the way the offense performed in the second half, particularly in three of the final four games (the penultimate regular season contest, Game 163 and the Wild-Card game). 

So much has been made of the Cubs' young core of position players over the last few years, but the evaluation has to change after a bunch of the members of "The Core" took steps back in 2018 (Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr.). 

Kyle Schwarber enjoyed a bit of a resurgent season as he cut down on strikeouts, walked more and boosted his batting average while improving as a defender, but also saw a dip in power and still hasn't taken that big step forward toward one of the league's most feared run producers.

Kris Bryant also obviously experienced a dip in offensive production, but so much of that can be tied into the left shoulder injury that clearly affected his swing.

After a disappointing end to the season that highlighted the offensive shortcomings, Epstein was blatantly honest about how the evaluation of these players has to evolve:

"It has to be more about production than talent going forward," Epstein said. "And that includes our own assessments. Beyond that, it's also trying to understand why we're not where we should be with some individual players. In other words: If you look back, players who do certain things at 22 and 23 should be progressing into a better, more productive phase of their career at 24, 25 and 26.

"I'm the first one to talk about how development and progress — those aren't linear things all the time. There are a lot of ups and downs. But I think there's a trend where Javy took the big step forward, but there are other guys who went the opposite direction or have been trending the opposite direction a little bit. We have to get to the bottom of that.

"It's our job not just to assemble a talented group, but unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Because that's ultimately all that matters. It's an assessment on those two fronts. The talent that we have and who's going to be productive, who's not or where we can find that production. And then also understand the environment and are we doing everything that we can in creating just the right situation to get the most out of these guys."

And therein lies a perfect transition into the next category...

Potential trades

With that aforementioned core of young position players, the only former members of "The Core" that have been traded away are Jorge Soler and Starlin Castro. Year after year of trade rumors and yet as of this writing, guys like Schwarber and Russell and Happ remain in Cubs uniforms.

Will that change this winter? Obviously we don't know for sure, but it seems as likely as at any other point in the last few offseasons.

Reading the tea leaves, it would make sense for the Cubs to deal away at least one of those core members this winter to either bolster the bullpen or restock the farm system. 

For starters, the offensive dip in the second half could portend the need for change. It's very hard for a big group of young hitters to all develop on the same path at the same pace, which means the learning curve can lead to prolonged slumps that occur all at the same time — which we've seen often the last few seasons. 

Epstein was also candid about how the players aren't quite as happy with Maddon's ever-changing lineup as they once were which also means the Cubs probably have to shed some of their depth at some point if they truly want more stable playing time. Almora or Happ can't sit on the bench five times a week without completely inhibiting their development path.

The Cubs also showed exactly how they feel about this group of hitters when they went out and acquired Daniel Murphy in August, stressing the need for his "professional at-bats" in the lineup on a consistent basis at the most important time of the season.

Free agency

The Cubs will have World Series expectations in 2019, so once again, they figure to be big players in free agency. Even if they don't wind up with Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, they will at least kick the tires on the two superstars since they're clearly in the market for improved offense.

But beyond the big fish, the Cubs need to add to the bullpen, bolster the lineup, acquire some more shortstop depth and potentially even add a veteran backup catcher to help give Contreras more regular rest. All those moves could come from the free agent market.

Addison Russell

Will he be back? Even if he is still on the Cubs roster at the start of next year, would he make it through the year? The Cubs may eventually trade him, but why give up on him at a time when Epstein said it's important for the organization to support Russell and his value is also the lowest it's ever been? Strictly thinking in a baseball sense, he could be a perfect midseason trade piece.

Regardless of what happens with Russell, there is some change for the Cubs in that for the first time ever, Javy Baez will enter the official offseason as the clear starter at shortstop next year (at least for the first month). 

Defensive puzzle

Whoever the Cubs add this offseason to help the lineup and subtract from the roster that ended 2018 will still have to fit in the same defensive puzzle somehow. For example, if the Cubs signed Machado, they could slot him in at shortstop a bunch, which opens up Baez to float and play second a bunch or third, which moves Bryant to the outfield, which moves Schwarber to the bench. And on and on with any potential move the Cubs make this winter.

On the other hand, taking guys away from the current defensive puzzle also would have ripples throughout the rest of the roster. For example, if Happ is traded away, that also removes a switch-hitter and a guy with a ton of defensive versatility away from the roster. What does that do to the depth chart in the outfield or at third base? 

Starting Rotation

There might not be any change in terms of additions to the Cubs' rotation ahead of 2019, but that's not to say there won't be any movin' and shakin'.

Assuming the Cubs pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option — which they should and probably will — that will leave them with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Hamels, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery all under contract for next season and all projected to be healthy enough to pitch by the start of spring training. (Before you ask: yes, the Cubs are planning on Smyly as a starter right now; Epstein said as much in September.)

Lester, Hendricks and Quintana are locks for the Opening Day rotation, as is Hamels if that option is picked up. Darvish will surely be in the rotation, too, assuming he's fully over the elbow/triceps issue that limited him to only 40 innings in his first year in Chicago.

So what will the Cubs do with Smyly, Chatwood and Montgomery? Smyly will be on an innings limit in 2019 after missing the last two years due to Tommy John, so it's possible the Cubs opt to switch gears and just throw him in the bullpen to start the year. They may do the same with Montgomery, but will the veteran lefty be OK with that after publicly admitting he wants to start at various points over the last year-plus? Would Chatwood be OK in moving to the bullpen or would the Cubs just move him if he is still having command woes? 

Epstein and Hoyer often remind you can never have too much pitching, but in a way, the Cubs may have too much starting pitching on their roster for 2019 taking up a big part of the team's payroll. Is it possible we'd see a guy get moved this winter as a result? You never know.

40-man roster

This is the most mundane area, as every team makes pretty significant changes on their 40-man roster each offseason — even under the radar. There will always be shakeups with players getting DFA'd to create room for new additions, prospects added to the 40-man roster so as to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft, etc. 

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

NBC Sports Chicago

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

A Cubs pitcher taking in a Blackhawks game in a suite is nothing special, but doing so with a World Cup winner is... different.

Kyle Hendricks was spotted by the cameras of Thursday's Blackhawks-Coyotes broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago. The guy he was standing next to was none other than Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, a World Cup with Germany and Champions League winner with Bayern Munich.

Hendricks is known for being reserved on the mound and in his interviews with the media. Meanwhile, Schweinsteiger was filmed yelling "Bear Down" in the hallway of Toyota Park after a Fire practice earlier in the day.

There's no telling what inspired Schweinsteiger to do this, but he has definitely embraced Chicago sports teams since joining the Fire in March of 2017.

Makes you wonder what Hendricks and Schweinsteiger were talking about. Best places to get brats in Chicago?