Anthony Rizzo Has Exceeded 2014 Breakout, Is Dark Horse MVP Candidate

For the longest time, Anthony Rizzo was known as a bust. Time and time again, he failed to live up to the tremendous hype that had followed him since he was a consensus top prospect for the Boston Red Sox, then the San Diego Padres and finally, the Chicago Cubs.

In his rookie season in 2011, Rizzo hit a putrid .141 with only one home run and 10 extra-base hits in 49 games. But the Cubs were still willing to send highly-regarded fireballer Andrew Cashner to San Diego in exchange for the underperforming first baseman.

Rizzo has rewarded Cubs president Theo Epstein for his confidence, as he has turned into one of the game's most productive sluggers. His true breakout came in 2014, when he mashed 32 home runs and made his first career All-Star Game appearance.

Yet somehow, Rizzo has found ways to improve his game in 2015.

He is currently hitting .287 with 26 home runs and has already matched last season's RBI total with 78. Nothing really stands out there, considering that he is on pace to hit the same number of home runs and hit for an almost identical batting average.

But one must dig deeper to truly appreciate Rizzo's 2015 brilliance.

It is easy to claim that Rizzo's increased number of RBI doesn't mean much - chalk it up as nothing that Rizzo himself has done but he is just benefiting from an improved cast around him. However, while there are certainly better hitters around him this year, Rizzo deserves all the credit in the world for being on pace to reach the 100-RBI plateau. Check out how much more effective he has been this year in run-scoring opportunities, per ESPN.com:

2014 2015
Runners on base .266/.368/.527 .323/.433/.568
Runners in scoring position (RISP) .241/.357/.431 .330/.432/.641
RISP w/ 2 outs .119/.245/.214 .333/.538/.639

The improvement has been incredible. Where as in 2014 he did most of damage with nobody on base, Rizzo is taking his game to another level in high-leverage situations this season.

Another area where Rizzo has improved is his base running. Not known as a speedster, Rizzo has swiped a career-high 15 bases so far this year. By season's end, he will likely have more than three times more stolen bases than in any other season in his career.

Rizzo has considerably cut his strikeout percentage from 18.8 percent to 14.5 percent this year. He has made hard contact more often this year, per FanGraphs' batted ball tracker, and he has also increased his fly ball and line drive percentages while hitting fewer ground balls. Finally, he is hitting the ball to all fields at a higher clip, as he has pulled the ball slightly less this year than last.

As far as statistics go, Rizzo is an elite player. He ranks in the top-10 in all of baseball in overall wins above replacement and offensive wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, as well as on-base percentage, OPS and adjusted OPS+.

What the stats can't quantify, though, is another one of Rizzo's critical attributes: his terrific leadership. Even though he is still fairly young at 26 years of age, he is one of the older players in the Chicago clubhouse, and he is someone who his teammates look up to.

He set the tone for this team way back in January, when he boldly proclaimed that the Cubs were going to win the NL Central. It seemed like crazy talk when he said it and, while they probably won't be able to catch the always-stellar St. Louis Cardinals, they are currently a season-high 20 games over .500 and on track to make the playoffs as one of the two Wild Card teams.

All of this begs the question: Does Anthony Rizzo deserve to be in the conversation for the National League Most Valuable Player award?

At first glance, he doesn't have a chance. Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt have been too awesome. But again, dig a little deeper and Rizzo might have a shot.

Among only National League players, Rizzo ranks fourth in OPS, fifth in total bases, fifth in doubles, sixth in homers, fifth in RBI and 10th in runs scored. Also, he leads the NL with a whopping 24 hit-by-pitches.

Prefer advanced sabermetrics to traditional stats? Rizzo is sixth in Fangraphs' WAR, fifth in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), fourth in weighted on base average (wOBA), fifth in adjusted OPS+, fourth in runs created and has been on base the fifth-most times of anyone in the Senior Circuit.

That's a lot of stats and, while they show that Rizzo has not necessarily been the best player in the league, they also prove that he has been pretty darn good. And pretty darn good might be good enough as far as the MVP award is concerned, especially with the voters' propensity of taking the player's team performance into account.

For example, in the past five years, all 10 MVP winners from both leagues have played on teams that have made the playoffs. Right now, if the season ended today, both Harper and Goldschmidt are slated to miss out on playing October baseball.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

According to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, Rizzo has an excellent MVP resume to this point.

“National League, it’s a little more wide open,” Heyman said recently on The Mully and Hanley Show, a popular radio program on Chicago's 670 The Score. “Harper and Goldschmidt’s teams aren’t in (the playoffs) right now. They’re both around .500. We’ll see what happens to them. I do think that affects the voting, as it should, because it’s Most Valuable Player. It’s not best player. That’s the way it’s always been. There’s been a long history and precedent for voting for a guy whose team is at least in contention or preferable wins (big). That being said, I think you’ve got Rizzo, you’ve got (Andrew) McCutchen. There’s probably one or two others in the mix."

"I do think that Rizzo is a bona-fide candidate, though, and could win."

It will definitely be an interesting ballot this year. Cases can certainly be made for Harper and Goldschmidt, as well as San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen.

One last stat that might make Rizzo even more enticing for MVP voters: WPA, or win probability added. This number attempts to monitor how much a player has added to his team's chances of winning. Rizzo ranks first in all of baseball. Ahead of Harper, Goldschmidt, Posey and McCutchen, but also ahead of American League stars like Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout.

While including American League players in that last statistic might be irrelevant to his NL MVP case, it is yet another way to appreciate how awesome of a player Anthony Rizzo truly is.

Personally, this writer is sticking with Harper for MVP because his out-of-this-world offensive numbers are certainly deserving, but if the voters decide to go with a player who will play in the postseason, Rizzo is their guy.

He has established himself as one of baseball's most feared hitters, as well as one of its best all-around players and most intriguing leaders.

All statistics are accurate through August 28 and are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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