Assuming he starts at first base on Opening Day, Anthony Rizzo will become the first person since Mark Teixeira in 2015 and 2016 to be the Yankees’ Opening Day first baseman in back-to-back years.
In the intervening years, Greg Bird, Tyler Austin, Luke Voit and Jay Bruce have handled the role. Bird actually did so twice, but they were not in consecutive seasons. Since Teixeira retired following the 2016 campaign, the Yankees have employed 11 men that played at least half of their games in pinstripes as a first baseman. This means that people like DJ LeMahieu and Chase Headley, who moonlighted as first basemen but primarily played elsewhere, do not count for the purpose of this exercise.
According to Baseball-Reference, the most valuable of those 11 true first baseman was Voit. Rizzo, who only joined the team 17 months ago, is already second to Voit in Wins Above Replacement. The most shocking part is who comes next, though. Despite playing in a grand total of six games for the Yankees, Ji-Man Choi ranks as the Yankees’ third-best first baseman since the start of 2017, per Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR.
After Choi, the only other people to post a positive WAR total were Mike Ford and Garrett Cooper. Austin clocked in at exactly 0.0, with the likes of Bird, forgotten pandemic legend Chris Gittens and 2021 Opening Day starter Bruce all coming in below zero.
At such a talent-rich position, and one that does not require a high level of defense or athleticism, the Yankees have somehow struggled immensely to find any level of consistency. When you factor in the bandbox dimensions of Yankee Stadium, which reward home run hitters tremendously, it’s even more curious that the Yankees have had such a hard time finding a solid first baseman, a position flush with power hitters.
The hope is that the club can flush all of those putrid memories for now. Rizzo is, full stop, a much better player than anybody else the Yankees have trotted out in the post-Teixeira days. His professional approach at the plate, coupled with a level-headed demeanor born from years of big-game experience, make him a perfect running mate for Aaron Judge, who he has become very close with since joining the team. It’s not a stretch to say that if Rizzo had left in free agency this offseason, the chances of Judge doing so would have increased as well.
On the field, Rizzo has also ingratiated himself well. Over 179 games with the Bombers, he’s responsible for 40 home runs, 96 RBI, and an .804 OPS. Amongst the Yankee regulars, Rizzo was the second-best hitter on the team last season. His high on-base, low strikeout numbers are what the Yankees have hoped to get from LeMahieu, whose recent string of injuries have kept him out of the lineup and zapped much of his slugging percentage, something that Rizzo has had no issue keeping above .400. With the new rules about defensive shifting coming into effect in 2023, there will also be more room for Rizzo to find some additional base hits.
Not for nothing, Rizzo has also been very candid about his desire to be a Yankee. While many players are reluctantly thrown into the spotlight upon their New York arrival, Rizzo has handled the trappings of the Yankee lifestyle well, using the expertise he gained from a decade in the intense Chicago media market. During his virtual press conference in November welcoming him back to the Yankees, the 33-year-old admitted that he considered the Astros’ offer, but ultimately spurred them because he “loves being a Yankee”, noting that being “part of this iconic franchise is amazing.”
Rizzo now occupies a place in the Yankee ecosystem similar to Johnny Damon in the late-2000s. Both players arrived with a championship already in tow, and while neither were ever asked to be the superstar, the team elevates to an entirely different level when they’re playing well. While Damon supported Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in a star-studded lineup, Rizzo is closer in skill level to Judge and Giancarlo Stanton than Damon was to his more famous teammates. A rejuvenated Rizzo — he said the back troubles that tripped him up last year were completely gone by the playoffs and have not affected his offseason workouts at all — has the potential to join Judge and Stanton in the 35-dinger club, a place where 2019 Gleyber Torres is the only person who’s been granted entry in the last ten years.
Health provided, there’s also no reason to believe Rizzo will slow down. He still finds himself in the 75th percentile or better of some very important modern offensive categories, including max exit velocity (91st), expected slugging percentage (81st), walk rate (79th) and barrel percentage (76th). Another great sign for Yankee fans is that Rizzo, as he should, made a concerted effort last season to start elevating the ball more often. In his 12th year in the bigs, Rizzo posted his highest ever fly ball percentage and lowest ever ground ball rate. He also pulled the ball more frequently than any other year of his career, save for the 49-game cup of coffee he got as a Padres’ rookie in 2011.
The results — unsurprisingly for a guy in the launch pad environments of the American League East — were 32 homers, tying his career high. Rizzo also had the highest isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of his career. While selling out for power has doomed the Yankees in the recent past, Rizzo possesses enough of a varied skill set that the foundation of a great all-around hitter are still there. Now he’s just hitting more balls that have a potential to do serious damage.
With a fresh two-year extension in his pocket, Rizzo looks to finally be the guy to put a stop to the Yankees’ revolving door at first base. Like with Teixeira though, the last guy to bring any stability to the cold corner, Rizzo delivering a World Series to the Bronx is the best way to leave a truly meaningful legacy.