Cubs notebook: Leadoff Rizzo, Happ’s mental day off and injury report
Anthony Rizzo is coming for his first career 20-20 season.
The 31-year-old is 3-for-3 on stolen base attempts this season, which puts him on pace for 21 thefts.
Rizzo has been aiming to improve that part of his game and relished the chance to show it off in the leadoff spot Wednesday night against the Braves.
“I’ve been working on my speed,” a smiling Rizzo said. “I’ve seen some of the data that says my speed’s been getting faster from the last couple years. It’s one thing the regression models tried to say was holding me down, so I’m trying to prove those wrong.”
Rizzo’s career high in steals came back in 2015 when he swiped 17 bags.
Wednesday marked his 61st start in the leadoff spot as manager David Ross continued the annual tradition of slotting Rizzo atop the Cubs order.
It was his first go-round in that role in 2021 after spending all season hitting 3rd (19 games) and 4th (4 games) prior to Wednesday.
“Rossy mentioned it to me and just asked how I felt about it and I said, ‘yeah, I’m all for it,'” Rizzo said. “Whatever helps and whatever it takes. Hopefully it’s one of these things where it jump starts me a little bit and jump starts our team.”
The move did not have the desired effect on the offense as the Cubs lost 10-0 in Atlanta. Rizzo went 1-for-4 with a single and a big strikeout on the mound.
He owns a career .327 average, .415 on-base percentage and .997 OPS leading off.
Rizzo never hit leadoff until the 2017 season and he has stepped into the role for a spell each season since 2016:
2020: 3 starts (.580 OPS)
2019: 12 starts (1.167 OPS)
2018: 31 starts (.979 OPS)
2017: 14 starts (1.053 OPS)
Even though he’s performed so well in that spot and the Cubs have not been able to fill the leadoff role consistently since Dexter Fowler’s departure, Rizzo does not want this to become a permanent thing.
He’s never thought about what it would be like to lead off all season.
“Nope, I never wonder that and I hope it never happens,” Rizzo said. “It’s not really something I enjoy that much — leading off. It’s fun for a little bit. I like hitting 3, 4, 5 and driving in the runs.
“Not to say the leadoff spot doesn’t have RBI opportunities, but it’s just a different mentality and it’s something that I think the next generation of leadoff hitters might be different. But the way I was brought up in this game, it’s just a psychologically weird thing leading off.”
That said, Rizzo does enjoy the unique nature of leading off sporadically and is more focused on helping the Cubs offense get into a groove than where he’s hitting in the lineup.
“It’s just fun and exciting,” Rizzo said. “I’m probably gonna be swinging out of my shoes on the first pitch if it’s a fastball today. … You just have fun with it that first at-bat and the next thing you know you’re up in eight more hitters — quick. Second inning, 3rd inning, it comes around quick.
“It’s just different enough. I like it in definitely short, sporadic moments. If I had to be a full-time leadoff hitter and it was rolling and everything was working, I’m all for it.”
Part of the reason Rizzo was tabbed as the team’s leadoff hitter Wednesday is because Ian Happ received the day off from starting. He has spent most of the time atop the order for the Cubs this season but is hitting .135 on the season with a .473 OPS.
Nico Hoerner hit leadoff the last two games while Happ hit 5th (Monday) and 8th (Tuesday).
Long-term, Ross still believes Happ is the best fit as the team’s leadoff hitter.
“Yeah, that’s the hope,” Ross said. “In my vision, Happer leads off for us and gets on base and sets the tone. I think he hasn’t just been the version of himself quite yet — still trying to get going on this season.
“When he does, he’s a real threat at the top and gets on base a lot for those guys behind him. Got some slug up there that when he’s right. I really like him at the top.”
Ross also believes Wednesday can serve as a mental day off for Happ and will allow the switch-hitter to spend more time in the batting cage or watching video instead of having to get ready to start the game.
Happ was available off the bench and came in mid-game to pinch hit and play right field as Jason Heyward also received a partial day off in the blowout loss.
After a one-game absence, Kris Bryant (bicep) was back in Wednesday’s lineup and played left field.
Javy Báez continues to progress well in his return from hamstring tightness. He did some pregame work Wednesday afternoon.
“Really good — was moving well,” Ross said. “He’ll take groundballs, hit today, move around, see how he feels tomorrow and all signs are pointing good as long as he’s healthy.
“He’ll be available off the bench today. If everything goes well and he’s not sore tomorrow, we’ll put him in there.”
Báez didn’t get into the game and has missed the last three contests.
Meanwhile, Joc Pederson (wrist) was with the South Bend alternate site group Wednesday, taking some swings in batting practice. He hit the 10-day IL last week and would be eligible to return as soon as this weekend.
The Cubs also placed backup catcher Austin Romine on the IL Monday with a wrist sprain and an MRI showed a “pretty significant” issue, Ross said. Romine will be on the shelf for several weeks before he can resume baseball activities.
Romine missed the first few weeks of the season with a knee sprain and has appeared in 6 games with the Cubs.