I’ve got a bit of a bone to pick with Dave Cameron, the de facto leader of the “Addison Russell will be a good-not-great player” movement. That relatively innocuous take on the 22-year-old shortstop came from a recent FanGraphs chat, but Cameron is also on record saying that Russell has “low contact rate for a guy with average power” and “flaws that limit upside,” not to mention that he’s “not a star.”
Cameron’s a really good writer and usually right on the money with his assessments, but I feel that he’s missing the boat on Russell in a bad way. He’s not the only one who thinks the Cubs shortstop is a glove-first guy with a bottom-of-the-order bat, just the easiest target. Sorry, Dave, but I’ma embrace the hell outta this here target and squeeze for a bit. Nothing personal (not that he’ll ever actually read this anyway).
It should be noted that calling Russell a glove-first player is not, in and of itself, a pejorative designation. Given the way he fields his position, he’d have to be one of the best hitters in the game (which he has been of late) to balance the scales. But to discount the bat irrespective of the glove is to sell the kid woefully short.
Admittedly there have been (and will be again) stretches in which Russell looked like anything but a guy who is out of place hitting 8th or 9th. For a 13-game period between April 16 and May 3, the young man slashed .174/.328/.283 with only two extra-base hits. If we look to some more peripheral numbers, however, we’ll see what was really going on. Russell had matching 17.2% walk and strikeout rates, both of which are much better than his career marks and are pretty darn good for any hitter in today’s game, over that stretch. There’s also the matter of the .194 BABIP, which suggests he was the victim of some bad luck.
In the seven games since, all the kid has done is slash .414/.485/.724 with six extra-base knocks, 11 RBI’s, and a wRC+ of 211. I’m far from an expert, but I think those are pretty good numbers. Of course, the other side of that coin is that his .550 BABIP of late is about as sustainable as Donald Trump’s speed in a humility-powered car. You know, because The Donald isn’t very humble. Get it? Okay, moving on…
Is it fair to base a player’s performance on one hot week? Not in the least. This is less about judging Russell on small sample sizes and more about seeing how the ups and downs of a season coalesce into an accurate picture of true performance.
You may have seen my recent dissertation on the Cubs’ refined offensive philosophy, a work of genius (got room in that car, Donnie?) that referenced such on-base luminaries as Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo. Lost in the applause for those players and others of their ilk has been Russell, who has significantly improved his own plate approach. Consider that his strikeout rate has dropped from 28.5% to 20.5% and his walk rate has jumped from 8.0% to 14.4% between last year and this.
He’s swinging less at bad pitches and more at good ones and he has improved his overall contact rate, though at 71.6% it is still appreciably lower than fellow SS phenoms Carlos Correa (80.4) and Francisco Lindor (82.8). In that regard, Cameron has a very valid point. Russell is making improvements though; he has leveled out his swing to hit more line drives and grounders. Soft contact is down, which is a good sign, and where he’s hitting the ball has changed as well.
A 42.6% pull hitter last season, Russell has almost completely reversed course to become a 36.9% oppo hitter in 2016. Actually, a 32/31/37 pull/center/opp split shows that he’s able to use all parts of the field effectively. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the young man is learning how to take what pitchers give him in order to become a really good Major League hitter
That was certainly the case Friday afternoon when Russell faced Franciso Liriano and his nasty slider/changeup combo. The young Cub had already swung and missed at one of each of those pitches between taking a couple balls as well. Liriano’s fifth pitch, an 86 mph slider, appeared to graze the inside of the zone but was called a ball. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was amazed that Russell was able to take it and that home plate umpire Pat Hoberg didn’t ring him up.
Given new life, Russell dug in and once again saw a mid-80’s slidepiece. Uh-oh, somebody make a bad mistakey. This particularly breaking pitch had no bite whatsoever, but maybe that’s because the Cubs shortstop knocked its teeth out.
It was on after that, with the Cubs pounding out another pair of homers and a total of 8 earned runs off of the veteran southpaw.
Would you like to venture a guess as to how many MLB shortstops have driven in more runs than Russell at this point in the season? If you said just Trevor Story, you’re right. Oh, there’s also the matter of Russell routinely batting at the bottom of the order, where RBI chances generally aren’t as plentiful as they are at higher elevations. And yes, I understand that runs batted in aren’t necessarily a true measure of a hitter’s worth. With his performance Friday, Russell is now up to .264/.379/.427 with 3 home runs and 25 RBI’s.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take that all day from a middle infielder, particularly one who can pick it at a Gold Glove level. As a Cubs fan and a man who wrote that Russell would have a bigger impact than Kyle Schwarber (kind of a given at this point), I’ve perhaps got a bit of confirmation bias here. Still, I don’t know how you can watch this kid play and not see the incredible potential he possesses. At the plate as well as in the field.
There are a lot of words baseball we’ll use to describe Addison Russell in the future, but I’ve got a funny feeling that “average” and “flawed” won’t be among them too often.