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Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo is putting doubts to rest

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI – For the Sun-Times

A mere two years ago, Cubs fans weren’t quite sure what to make of first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

His half-season .285 batting average and .805 OPS in 2012 had declined to .233 and .742 in 2013, and a .241 batting average and .770 OPS at the All-Star break that season had faded to .222 and .705 in the second half.

There was consternation about his failures with runners in scoring position, situations in which Rizzo hit .191 with a .615 OPS in his first full season.

Would the Cubs really get what they expected when they traded top pitching prospect Andrew Cashner and minor-league outfielder Kyung-Min Na to the Padres for Rizzo and minor-league pitcher Zach Cates?

The answer has been a resounding ‘‘yes.’’ Rizzo made a great leap forward last season to a .286 batting average, 32 home runs and a .913 OPS. That’s in the same ballpark as his .278, 29 and .911 so far this season.

His .241 batting average and .788 OPS with runners in scoring position were well below his overall numbers in 2014, but he has been better this season with runners in scoring position than without, batting .305 with a 1.027 OPS.

Rizzo’s earlier numbers with runners in scoring position weren’t alarming to those who follow metrics, nor are his numbers this season surprising. There’s a great deal of year-to-year variation because of small sample sizes, and every hitter with a career of more than a couple of seasons has years when he’s better with runners in scoring position than he is overall and years when he’s worse.

There are other measures of production in clutch situations, including win probability added (WPA) and win probability added divided by leverage index (LI). Both start with a measure of effectiveness in high-leverage situations, then WPA/LI adjusts for opportunities.

To calculate WPA, every plate appearance is compared to a chart showing a team’s win expectancy before and after the plate appearance.

To see how it works, take the Cubs’ 5-2 victory July 30 against the Brewers. Rizzo batted in the eighth inning with two on, two outs and the Cubs trailing 2-0. At that point, the Cubs had a 12.1 chance of winning. Rizzo’s three-run homer gave them a 3-2 lead and raised their chance of winning to 72.6 percent. Rizzo was credited with .605 WPA for that plate appearance.

Overall, Rizzo has a 6.84

WPA. That leads the major leagues, with the Reds’ Joey Votto second at 6.55.

Some batters get more chances in high-leverage situations, so there is also LI, indicating the average leverage of each hitter’s plate appearances. Dividing WPA by that LI measures how a hitter has performed in important situations, prorated for opportunities.

The leader in WPA/LI is the Nationals’ Bryce Harper at 7.98. He is followed by Votto at 6.95. Rizzo is fourth at 5.68. Rizzo has a higher WPA in part because the Cubs have given him more high-leverage opportunities, but Harper has turned a greater portion of his chances into positive outcomes.

Still, fourth in the majors in WPA/LI is star-level production in important situations, answering those who two years ago worried that Rizzo might not have that in him.

Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.