It may be taking longer than some expected, but make no mistake, Joe Rizzo is still well on his way to becoming an integral part of the Seattle Mariners’ future. After some growing pains early on, Rizzo has taken his game to new heights in 2019. But this is only the beginning.
Rizzo, 21, was a cornerstone of the Mariners 2016 draft. Selected in the second round, he was tabbed as a bat-first prospect. Initially drafted as a third baseman, it was unclear if he’d stay at the hot corner. Scouts had him labeled all over the diamond. ‘He has the arm and build to play catcher’ they said. ‘The bat can play at first base’ they said. Either way, the hit tool was going to force the team to find a spot for him.
But that hasn’t been the case just yet.
The bat hasn’t played quite as heavy as most expected. Rizzo hit just .251 in 2017 and followed that campaign with a .241 batting average in 2018.
He wasn’t where he thought he’d be.
“I’m not exactly sure what happened last year,” Rizzo said. “It was just a bad year. I couldn’t find my swing.”
Enter 2019, a new swing, a new mental approach, and as the tape shows, a new Joe Rizzo.
Thanks to a few swing changes early this season, Rizzo has seen his slash ascend to .285/.343/.410 in 2019. In fact, up until about a month ago, Rizzo was hitting well over .300 on the year. July was a tough stretch, but he finds himself hitting .310 for the month of August as he looks to finish strong.
Indeed, the Hackensack, New Jersey product seems to have found something previously missing in 2017 and 2018. But he didn’t do it alone.
“Jose Umbria, our hitting coach, has done wonders for me this year,” Rizzo said. “We made a couple changes to my pre-swing setup and it’s allowing me access to my core. I can turn on the ball now. I’m driving the ball.”
In years past, Rizzo was far more upright at the plate. He’d rely on his stocky build to generate power. He hasn’t changed his middle-of-the-field/gap approach, but his new setup is allowing him to turn on inside pitches. That turn-and-burn mentality has allowed Rizzo to hit eight home runs this season, a career-high.
“I definitely plan on reaching double-digit home runs by the end of the year,” Rizzo said. “I’ve never done that before and it feels like I’m unlocking something there.”
It’s clear the swing changes and improved mental approach are paying dividends for Rizzo. Now roughly 1000 at-bats into his stay at High-A Modesto, Rizzo must be champing at the bit for his chance to see AA pitching, right?
Not so fast.
This is a year of learning, building, and maturing. He’s in no hurry. Showcasing your skills at AA Arkansas can be a tall order if a player doesn’t have the appropriate foundation.
“I told Andy (McKay) my goal this year is to keep a consistent approach all season,” Rizzo said. “I have my heart set on being in Arkansas next season, but I’m focused on finishing this season with a consistent mindset. I want to be locked in for 2020.”
There’s still the issue of where Rizzo is to play on the diamond. But he’s not allowing that narrative gain any momentum.
Recently named the “Best Defensive Third Baseman” in the California League by Baseball America, Rizzo has clearly made huge strides on the dirt. He credits former Modesto Infield Coach Louis Boyd (now managing the Everett AquaSox) and Modesto Head Coach Denny Hocking with his new defensive prowess.
“Earlier this spring I had a conversation with Denny and Lou about glove position and it’s helped a ton,” Rizzo said. “We pushed the glove out in front of me and it’s allowed me to see the ball and the diamond a lot better.”
Ironically, Rizzo doesn’t necessarily see himself as a third baseman anymore. He’s more of a Swiss Army Knife these days. Hocking has him moving all over the diamond each night. He’s capable of playing third base at a high level, but Rizzo is finding a lot of success and comfort at second base and first base as well.
“Honestly, I absolutely love second base,” Rizzo said. “It’s freeing. You can play the hops. You have time to move your feet. You can take your time a bit.”
Positional versatility is the name of the game right now for the 21-year-old and he’s completely impartial to where he’s playing on a night-to-night basis. Rizzo is far more concerned with taking on each game, each at-bat, each ground-ball with a rock-steady approach. Once he’s paid his dues, his talent will take over.
His father agrees.
“He reminds me of a thinner John Kruk, he really does,” Joe Rizzo Sr. said. “I truly believe his prospect star will absolutely take off again after this season.”
Nobody can fault Rizzo’s father for such exuberance. He is his father after all, and it seems a pretty good one at that.
“None of this would be possible without my dad,” Rizzo said. “I owe a lot of this to him. We still chat before and after every game and he’s on the east coast. He’s my biggest fan.”
“Yeah, my sleep schedule is **** now,” Joe Rizzo Sr. laughed. “But I enjoy every minute of it.”
No one is questioning whether the former 50th overall pick has the talent to be an impact player at the major league level. At this stage, it seems most are just waiting and wondering if it will all click. If numbers and mental approach are any indication, Rizzo seems to be taking massive steps toward developing to his ceiling.