Anthony Rizzo tells all on post-concussion syndrome, career-worst struggle

The Athletic

August 6, 2023

The sadistic part of baseball that Anthony Rizzo enjoys is diving into his failures, which forces him to have a deeper understanding of who he is as a player. There’s never been a point in his career where he’s had to do more soul-searching than over the past two-plus months when he’s been Major League Baseball’s worst hitter.

“It’s easy to be good,” Rizzo told The Athletic. “It’s easy to go on a hot streak. Everyone loves you. Life can’t go wrong. When you’re not going well, it’s how can you handle yourself? Through the two months, I’ve handled myself probably better than I ever had during any struggle.”

But he couldn’t find any answers as to why his production had dramatically dropped from hitting .304/.376/.505 with a 146 wRC+ before May 28 to .172/.271/.225 with a 43 wRC+ after May 28. On that day, Rizzo collided with San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. and left the game early with a neck injury. It wasn’t until Thursday that the team said he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, leading to many questions as to how he played for over two months.

The Athletic spoke with Rizzo outside of the New York Yankees clubhouse before Saturday’s game to get more clarity into how his post-concussion syndrome was handled, if he’d change anything about the process and why he feels like if anyone were to be blamed, it would be him.

Here’s our Q&A.

You mentioned that sometimes you were waking up feeling groggy. When did that exactly begin for you? Do you remember?

I can’t pinpoint exact dates on anything. What I do know is as a baseball player, as an athlete, you are just bred to play. I’ve played through back injuries. I’ve played on a pretty much broken ankle. I got hit. We flew to Seattle. My neck was sore. I didn’t have any head symptoms or anything like that. We took three days off as precaution. I think it was four days because I think there was an off day in L.A. All signs were good to go. The fogginess, you don’t really know what that is during the year. I relate to this when I was sick and had cancer when I was 18, I was playing in spring training and I was tired all of spring training. I was tired all through April, and I was like maybe this is just my first season. I didn’t know, and sure enough I ended up getting tested. You don’t look for excuses in this game. You look for solutions.

Did it ever become at all worrisome that it was continuing? Did it continue at all, like, all right it’s happening Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday? You mentioned it feeling like a hangover. Or was it occurring randomly?

It was random. Especially the last month, we go to Colorado and Anaheim. You go out west and it’s always weird going out west. It’s never easy to go out west. Maybe extra tired, but that’s just the grind of the season. There’s nothing abnormal about feeling that way. When you get the prolonged struggle, we all have egos. It’s like nothing is wrong. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. I still think I’m fine. I think I could be playing right now. I’m happy we got the test that states otherwise because I don’t know the harm. I’m sure guys have played like this throughout and then maybe you heal in the offseason. Obviously, my reaction time is a lot slower than it should be.

Was there ever a point during this that you just thought you were cooked and age had caught up to you?

When you’re used to hitting pitches, I mean, I have the utmost respect for this league and how hard it is. It’s not like I’m hitting .350 all of the time. But you know yourself as a hitter and you know what your strike zone is. When it all disappeared, you’re like what is going on? You don’t think it’s because of a collision. My agent said something about the collision. My parents said something. My wife said something. My friends said something. And they were like, “It all adds up.” Every time someone said something like that, I would get mad at them because I don’t need excuses in this game. I’m trying to get out of this and get better. As far as that, there’s nothing that popped up other than the struggle, but everyone struggles in baseball. It’s hard to balance. Now looking back, I can see it maybe now makes sense. I don’t think it was stubbornness from myself because, again, traveling, our schedule is tough. You get in at 4 in the morning, off days. Everyone feels tired. It’s no different than it was a couple of years ago. When you wake up feeling a little groggy and you shouldn’t be, or you’re a little extra tired. That’s when I was like, you brush it off at first. Even this was brushed off. The training staff was being extra precautious and they were wanting to get more tests ran just to make sure there’s clarity of if there’s something.

One of the things that I found bizarre watching you over these past two months is you’ve always been a really low strikeout guy throughout your career. The amount of times you were striking out during this stretch, was that concerning? You mentioned that sometimes your pitch recognition was off. Did you take that as a sign that maybe something was off about yourself?

I was striking out in April and May more than I would like to. It’s just hard to relate all of it. I was swinging at pitches that when my brain registered it — for us, our eyes are so precise. I can pretty much tell you where a pitch was every single time. When that precision gets off a little bit, that’s when you start to think something is up. You start thinking a ball is here and you swing at it, but it’s way over there. That was the part where I was just like, you start going through the mechanics and see if they’re off and is that why I’m not seeing the ball right? I’ve actually wanted to strike out more the last few years. It sounds dumb.

Yeah, what do you mean by that?

You sacrifice so you can get a little more power instead of sacrificing self-situational (at-bats). My goal is always to strike out looking more because I never strike out looking. I wouldn’t chase as much. That’s really it.

You mentioned having fogginess in Baltimore. Was that what you were talking about with the hangover feeling and, if so, who did you actually speak with when you reported that?

Pretty much with the Yankees, the big thing I was saying was I just don’t miss these pitches. Something’s got to be up because something doesn’t add up to why I keep missing pitches or swinging at pitches and thinking they’re in one spot and they’re not precisely where I thought they were. So the conversations were all good. As players, the staff said we’ll get more tests, but they were precautionary to make sure. I was pretty much like, do I want to take a test? I didn’t think anything would show up because why would anything show up? I feel fine. When it does show up, you start backtracking and think you’re not as crazy as you thought you were.

Did you report this on Saturday? The (team) said you reported it during the weekend and you had said it was prior to the five-strikeout game (on Sunday).

I don’t remember the exact date. It wasn’t like I walked in there and said we need to get tests ran now. It was just like, hey this could be something from the collision. Can this be something? They asked how I felt. Again, I’m tired, but it wasn’t anything alarming from my end. As players, we’re not trained to go into the training room. If guys go in there and say today is the day I’m going to blow out, if they heard that and took everyone out, half the team would be sitting on the bench. They actually approached me and said, “Hey, let’s get more tests. What do you think?” I said absolutely. They took the initiative of getting the ball rolling.

One of the things a lot of people have been discussing since it was reported that you’ve been dealing with this is how can the Yankees miss this for two months? How can you miss this for two months? What would you say to that?

I don’t think anyone missed it, honestly. We did the test. I passed the concussion test. I sat out for four days, played, felt fine and didn’t feel anything. Even talking to the neurologists, they said with concussions sometimes, it’s the aftereffects. Maybe the brain wasn’t fully healed. As far as registering as a concussion, there were no signs of that. The way they handled it, the Yankees ,I loved the way they handled it. They trusted me. I trusted them. We went on and played. Just talking with them and having dialogue, it’s not like an ankle injury where you feel the ankle injury all of the time. This is a brain injury where I’ve played this game for 17 professional seasons. The grind of the season wears on you always. Do you ever get tired throughout the year? Yes. Do you ever get fogginess throughout the year? Yes.

From my understanding then, it never crossed your mind during these two months that you may be feeling the aftereffects of the collision then, correct?

No, because, again, we’re not bred to come up with excuses. The guys in this game who come up with excuses are guys who don’t stay very long.

Do you think that’s a problem in any way? You play through things, but sometimes it could be serious and you just aren’t going to tell anyone. Do you view that as an issue and wish you would have said something sooner than you did?

I don’t wish I would have said something sooner. Some of the tests we got from the neurologists are really good tests that I think are good tools to have, especially in baseball with our reaction times. Do I think it’s a problem playing through injuries? No, I don’t. I think that we have a short window of opportunities as athletes to play. Our joy comes from playing good, bad or indifferently. The question you always ask when you’re hurt is, “Can I make it worse and how much worse can I make it?” That’s always a question of every athlete. There’s guys who will play through anything and have a high pain threshold. There’s guys that need the time off. There were no signs except the prolonged struggle. So I don’t wish I would’ve said something sooner because that’s just the way I am as a player and as a person. I’ll play through anything. I’ll play right now if I could. That’s why I say, do I think it’s a problem in sports? No. You just have to weigh the risks and rewards. Did I think I had a concussion this whole time? Absolutely not. It all added up and I’m happy we got the results back. When you go through a long struggle like that, you go crazy. I think it could be a good thing in the long run for baseball. It’s every day. In other sports, you have rest periods. You could rest, rest, rest. Here, there’s no time. I think the compounding stress and fatigue maybe had a different role in this. But, no, I don’t regret it.

So I assume then you wouldn’t have changed anything about the process over these two months of how it was handled, how you handled it, how the Yankees handled it, how the trainers handled it. You wouldn’t change anything?

I get the people coming out and saying, “How did we miss this?” But the everyday grind of baseball, I don’t think the normal person knows. They just look at it as shut up, you make this much money. Relatively speaking, the everyday grind, not many people know about it. Our training staff was incredible through all of this. For them to take the time — I wanted to stay in that game. We were up five or six runs versus the Padres. They told me I was not staying in. They pulled me out. I fought about it. That’s how we are as players. They took the initiative. Through this whole process, it wasn’t like I was going in there saying, “This collision messed me up.” That’s an excuse. It didn’t mess me up. I was still competing with everything I had. But now to find out that there were these cascading effects of an injury, there’s no one at fault. If anyone is at fault, it’s me for being too stubborn with my process, of being too stubborn to compete because that’s what we love to do. That’s our adrenaline rush. We play a sport that we fail in more than we have success in. The sick part about this game is when you go through the struggles, it’s almost the fun part because you really have to dig down and figure out who you are. It’s easy to be good. It’s easy to go on a hot streak. Everyone loves you. Life can’t go wrong. When you’re not going well, it’s how can you handle yourself? Through the two months, I’ve handled myself probably better than I ever had during any struggle. When we National Boxing Bundesliga Champions League Championship College Football Copa del Rey Culture Europa League European Championship FA Cup Fantasy Baseball Fantasy Basketball Fantasy Football Fantasy Hockey Fantasy Premier League Formula 1 Gaming Golf International Soccer La Liga League Cup League One League Two LNH Men’s College Basketball Men’s World Cup Mixed Martial Arts MLB MLS Motorsports NBA NFL NHL did talk about it more in-depth, I mentioned it. They took the initiative to tell me that I’ve said this multiple times, and they asked if I was serious or joking around. If I was serious, we should get testing to make sure nothing is going on. As soon as I said it, we got the testing.

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