Despite punishing Pacific Coast League pitching, Anthony Rizzo's first foray in the majors with the Padres last season could be summed up as one giant whiff. Rizzo's mighty -- and mighty long -- swing produced a .141/.281/.242 line in 153 plate appearances. His 30.1% strikeout rate was one of the 15 highest marks in the majors among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Once San Diego picked up Yonder Alonso as part of the Mat Latos deal with the Reds, they decided they'd rather have Andrew Cashner's dominant-yet-brittle arm than Rizzo's pull power (hardly a great fit at Petco Park) and contact woes.
Called back up to the big leagues in late June, Rizzo has rewarded former Red Sox and current Cubs execs Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, who originally drafted him in the 6th round of the 2007 draft and included him in the December 2010 Adrian Gonzalez trade. Rizzo is batting .294/.335/.471 in 200 PA, and he has chopped his K rate all the way down to 14%.
Check out Rizzo's contact rate by pitch location with the Padres in 2011 and with the Cubs in 2012. He has made marked progress in connecting in every region of the zone, save for low-and-inside:
Rizzo in 2011
Rizzo in 2012
The biggest difference is on pitches thrown in the upper third of the zone. Rizzo missed 48.8% of high pitches that he swung at last season, blowing away (in a bad way) the 19% MLB average. This year, Rizzo has whiffed just 11.9% on high pitches. That contact has been hard, too. Rizzo batted and slugged .053 on high pitches last season (.405 MLB average for slugging on high pitches). This year, he's slugging .500 against high stuff.
Changes in strikeout rate become significant pretty quickly. And, as Fangraphs' Eno Sarris noted earlier this summer, Rizzo's hands look less fidgety and his swing path appears cleaner in 2012. With Wrigley Field playing much friendlier for lefty pull hitters (96 Park Factor, per StatCorner) than Petco (66 Park Factor) and Rizzo drastically cutting the Ks, it looks like Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod will get to enjoy the fruits of their Sox scouting labor after all.