Matt Rizzotti is having a dream season. The first base prospect has always been a nice player, but just never put together all of his tools and didn't come close to showing the type of power that the Phillies projected him to have when they drafted him out of Manhattan Community College in 2007. This season though, Rizzotti is having such a big season that even players on other clubs are aware of how his dream season is going. When Yankees prospect Justin Christian played against Rizzotti at Double-A this season, he made a point of letting Rizzotti know that he had taken notice of him.
"Any time he [Christian] got on base, he would say 'it's good to see you're still dreaming'," laughed Rizzotti. "And he meant it in a nice way. He was saying 'good for you', because eventually, you're probably going to have to wake up."
Rest assured that if opposing players realize how far Rizzotti has come, opposing teams have come to the same realization. As names were flying back-and-forth prior to the trade deadline and the Phillies were closing in on acquiring Roy Oswalt from Houston, Rizzotti's name came up as part of the package that would head to the Astros in exchange for Oswalt. Rizzotti took all of the rumors surrounding the situation in stride, but admitted that it was pretty heady stuff. "It was pretty cool. Someone actually called me, saying my name was mentioned on ESPN. That was first for me and that was pretty cool," admitted the 24 year-old prospect. "It's one of those things that truthfully, I try not to even think about it. I wish you could believe me when I say that. My name being mentioned on ESPN was pretty cool and I think that's every person's dream - any athletes dream - just to get mentioned on ESPN, because we watch it all the time."
In fact, Rizzotti's season has gone so well and has been so much like a whirlwind that it took him a little while to realize just how far he had come. It took him about seven innings into his first Triple-A game to even really appreciate the position that he had moved himself into. "I was standing on first base, just throwing groundballs to the infielders and it hit me like a ton of bricks," remembered Rizzotti. "I was just standing there and all of a sudden, I just had to stop. The whole season just sort of flashed in front of my eyes and it just so happened that the whole thing ended and I was standing on first base in a Triple-A game and that's just how my season's been going."
When a player goes from being a .268 hitter averaging eight home runs per season in the minors to a guy whose offense carries him from High-A Clearwater all the way to Triple-A Lehigh Valley in one season, you have to assume that he found some key to it all. For Rizzotti though, his approach is the same, his mechanics are the same, but how he prepared for the season is different and it's what he believes has led to his success. "I got myself a trainer. I did everything in the off-season that I had to do to get in baseball shape and I basically owe it all to him and that working out," said Rizzotti.
All young players have to make adjustments throughout their career. Moving from level-to-level in the minors brings different challenges that a player faces. Most players believe that the move from A-ball to Double-A is the toughest of the moves and when Rizzotti made the move this season, it was thought that he would most likely come back to Earth, at least temporarily, while he adjusted to the pitching at the new level. Rizzotti's stay on Earth lasted just two days and in his third game, he came up with two hits to put his average at an even .300 and it would never fall below that level again while he was with Reading. "That's [Double-A ball] your first taste of if it's a fastball count, you get your first taste of off-speed stuff. Somehow, I just adjusted to it quickly and continued on with my season."
One of the new situations that Rizzotti has had to face this season arose when he arrived at Triple-A, where Lehigh Valley fan favorite and veteran minor leaguer Andy Tracy was entrenched at first base. Rizzotti's appearance bumped Tracy to the bench against National League teams when the DH wasn't being used. Tracy, who is known for helping young players, took it in stride, which helped to make an uncomfortable situation a little easier to handle. "When I got here, I was just trying to mingle with the team, because I know the the guys, but I don't really know the guys. And to sum up the situation, when I got up, I heard a few cheers. When Andy Tracy pinch-hit, I watched almost every lady in the crowd do this outrageous dance and everyone was cheering. It's pretty cool to have that and I wish that I can get to that status that he has," said Rizzotti in a respectful way.
While everyone is ready to crown Rizzotti as a newly hailed prospect because of his offense, his defense has always been an afterthought when people mention just how good he can be. Some believe that Rizzotti is best suited to play for an American League club, since his defense could always be a question mark, while others believe that he may need to be moved to the outfield. Rizzotti's defense has actually gotten better, because he's worked hard on learning the nuances of first base and believes that he can be better than he is right now. It's also worth remembering that people were saying many of the same things about Ryan Howard when he was coming through the Phillies system and through hard work, Howard has turned himself into a pretty solid defensive first baseman. Howard took those comments as a challenge and that's much the same way that Rizzotti views them. "That's something that I take personally. I actually like to hear that, because it's that old thing that if you tell me that I can't do it, all I want to do is just prove you wrong," said Rizzotti in a defiant tone. "I'm trying to do whatever I can to get better."
As for changing positions, Rizzotti is open to learning a new position and joked that he would even be willing to catch if it's what the Phillies wanted him to do. While catching is out of the equation, a move to one of the corner outfield spots isn't and perhaps Rizzotti will be learning a new spot in the Florida Instructional League, but he's not focusing on that just yet. Instead, he's out early taking groundballs at first and doing what he can to improve his game for right now.
Rizzotti's mechanics are a bit unique; he leans heavily on his back leg in the box and uses that to generate power. His swing is generally a sweet and somewhat compact swing and he's hit a lot of balls right back through the middle since arriving at Lehigh Valley. One of the things that Rizzotti also does pretty well is to show some plate discipline and he's shown the ability to not try to do too much with outside pitches, preferring instead to either let them go by or just hit them back through the middle. It's taking him a little longer to find his way around Triple-A pitching than it did around Double-A pitching, but there's no cause for concern. It will be interesting to see how Rizzotti fares the rest of the way with Lehigh Valley, but there's no denying that his off-season work regimen has improved his approach to the game and that he has put himself squarely among the better prospects in the Phillies organization.
Matt Rizzotti's career stats