The Rundown: Cubs Not Optimistic About Russell’s Return, Zobrist Doesn’t Suck

It’s one thing to get hurt and quite another to re-aggravate an injury, particularly when you’re talking about soft-tissue issues. And that’s the trouble with Addison Russell’s foot strain or plantar fasciitis or whatever you want to call it. The specifics of the diagnosis don’t really matter as much as what it means for the shortstop and the Cubs as they head into the last few weeks of the season.

From the moment we found out that he’d been scratched from what would have been his second start with the Iowa Cubs, I was wary of Russell’s future. He would have headed back to Chicago either way, but doing so with the express purpose of seeing team doctors was a bad deal. And the timing of the whole thing meant that he wouldn’t be able to get in any live rehab action with an affiliate.

To hear Joe Maddon and the players discuss the matter, it sounds like the Cubs are bracing for the possibility that Russell won’t return this season. Like, at all.

“There’s no assumption,” Maddon said Thursday of getting Russell back on the field. “He could be out the rest of the year. He could be back. I don’t know.”

Then you had Anthony Rizzo saying that the chances of getting the shortstop back were “kind of growing slim now,” which was a little ominous. It seems even more so when the de facto captain spoke with optimism about Jake Arrieta and Willson Contreras, two players who should be returning to action within the next week.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s mad about having Javy Baez remain the everyday shortstop, but the fact remains that Russell is an integral part of this team. And by “integral,” I mean he’s the best shortstop on the roster. Period, point blank. (I always find it difficult to determine the placement and punctuation when using “period” in a sentence and I don’t think what I just did was ideal, but you’ll have to live with it.)

Despite missing a great deal of time recently, Russell leads all NL shortstops with 14 defensive runs saved and is sixth with a 4.2 ultimate zone rating. And while I understand that defensive metrics take much longer than a partial season to really stabilize, I think it’s fair to say that we know who he is at this point. So I guess you may also apply liberal salt to El Mago’s -1.5 UZR and 2 DRS.

But, Evan, Javy hasn’t played as many innings at short as Russell. Okay, fine, but extrapolating his innings out to make it an even comparison only saves one more run for Javy. Which, yeah, that’s not exactly equivalent. All that said, there’s still reason to believe that Baez’s stronger arm and greater athleticism would play better in the hole than Russell’s at this point.

If Russell is fully healthy, and I mean FULLY, he’s the shortstop. But if there’s even a little hitch in his giddy-up, it’d be worthwhile to shift him back over to second base for the limited action he may see through the remainder of the year. Given everything we’ve heard so far, I’ll be happy just to have him back on the active roster at all, regardless of where he plays.

Zobrist coming to life

There’s been a lot of belly-aching about Joe Maddon’s lineups this season, much of it well justified. But there comes a point at which a lot of criticism is leveled based on either habit or the inability to view things situationally. And I think we should all know by now that the Cubs skipper does things his own way when it comes to how he sets his batting order.

This isn’t some new concept, either. If you’ve read Tom Verducci’s book, The Cubs Way, you got the low-down on the proprietary statistical cocktail Maddon and the team’s “geeks” have mixed up using all manner of predictive data. Jesse Rogers went back to that same well recently and offered a more succinct breakdown that can be found in the book.

The “cocktail” Maddon refers to is the Cubs’ own formula to measure their players and the opponent. The manager has a small grid at the bottom right corner of his page given to him by his numbers people in the front office.

“This is reflective of our information,” Maddon says. “The number itself is an accumulation of different items we put into it. That’s our own little cocktail. And part of the original concept is to make it .300 still a good thing and .200 still a bad thing. So your mind still works in that way.”

No number reflects an actual batting average or any stat fans would easily recognize; the cocktail is mixed, so it spits out something Maddon can interpret right away. A .300 doesn’t mean a .300 average, but it still means something good. Based on this information, Maddon writes Happ’s name in the fifth spot in red (switch-hitter).

While it’s been tweaked and amped up over the course of his Cubs tenure, we knew this was the way Maddon did things from the very moment he was introduced as the team’s manager. Not long before offering the beer and shot Paul Sullivan missed out on, Maddon told Sahadev Sharma and the rest of the assembled media he carried a card in his pocket that was “dripping with analytics.”

Okay, okay, I’ll get to how this applies to Zobrist. I don’t have access to the limitless data the Cubs do, but I can manipulate the splits on FanGraphs enough to see that the aging switch hitter has actually been getting a lot better this season. Much of that is hidden behind an abysmal summer and both right-handed and power numbers that have been sapped by a wrist injury, but you have to look deeper.

Zobrist actually posted a 111 wRC+ and .345 wOBA on the strength of a .280/.366/.427 slash in 94 August plate appearances, most of which came from the left side of the plate. After Thursday’s game, Zorilla has an .824 OPS with a 116 wRC+ over his last 74 lefty plate appearances. Not bad at all, though some would say it’s not what you want out of a cleanup hitter.

Except that a quick look at the MLB averages for a batter in the fourth spot in the order reveal a .752 OPS, 97 wRC+, and .322 wOBA. Taking it a step further, we find an 8.6 percent walk rate, 21.6 percent strikeout rate, and a .172 ISO. Zobrist’s lefty numbers since the start of August: 10.1 percent BB, 16.5 percent K, and .171 ISO. So, yeah, he’s not your typical cleanup hitter. He’s better.

More news and notes

  • Dexter Fowler struck out with the bases loaded and the Cards trailing 3-0, ending the game and giving the Cubs a 5-game lead over both St. Louis and Milwaukee.
  • Adam Warren has been placed on the 10-day DL with back spasms
  • The Indians have moved Danny Salazar to the bullpen due to durability concerns following a bout with elbow inflammation that landed him on the DL.
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