Addison Russell Displaying Steady Growth One Year After Move to Short

As he nears the anniversary of his full-time move into the Cubs’ starting shortstop role, Addison Russell took a few moments to reflect on his career to this point. I’m not sure I’d echo Carrie Muskat’s use of “dominant” to describe the young man’s play, but he’s certainly proven that he deserves a spot at the big boys’ table.

“I had to learn second base on the fly,” Russell said. “But I think I played a pretty good second base and then got moved back over to shortstop. Things were a little more comfortable. In just under two years service time, I feel pretty comfortable right now.”

If you recall, Russell was called up shortly after Kris Bryant in a move that came as a bit of a shock at the time. Between adjusting to the leap in competition and having to play out of position for a few months, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Russell believes that strengthened his game though.

“Overcoming all that adversity early on has made me a pretty strong player already. I’m learning more and more as time goes on. The whole experience has been awesome. Even though it’s been a short amount of time, I’ve gained so much knowledge in that short amount of time.”

At first glance, the claims of being more comfortable and of learning and growing might ring hollow. After all, Russell’s stat line to this point of the 2016 season doesn’t appear dramatically different from his rookie campaign. If, that is, you’re just scouting the box score. The triple-slash lines from the past two years are nearly the same and the aggregate offensive metrics of wOBA and wRC+ are similar enough to prove little to the average observer.

But you, my friends, are not average observers. As such, I have no doubt you yearn to look below the surface and to dive into some of the ways Russell’s game is improving on a more cellular level. So let’s grab our microscopes and get to work.

The first thing that jumps out to me is the decrease in BABIP, which is a slightly-below-average .298 this year after sitting at .324 in his rookie season. I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this, but it is indicative of a small measure of luck. That makes Russell putting up similar or slightly better numbers all the more impressive, as he’s doing it without the benefit of as much good fortune.

You may have noticed that Russell appears to be driving the ball with more authority, a result of leveling his swing and hitting more line drives. His ground ball rate is essentially the same as last year, but fly balls have dropped from 40.7% to 33.9% and line drives have jumped from 18.2% to 24.1%. As you might imagine, there’s been a corresponding increase in hard-hit percentage from 27.1% as a rookie to 29.2% this season.

Russell has significantly improved his plate discipline as well. Not only is his walk rate higher (10.1% vs. 8.0%), but his strikeouts have dropped (24.3% vs. 28.5%) significantly. As expected, swinging strikes are down slightly and overall contact rate is up, though neither has seen more than a 0.9% improvement. What is really notable, however, is the shift in his contact on pitches outside the zone.

While he’s swinging at roughly the same number of pitches outside the zone (30.6% vs. 30.3%) this season, he’s making contact at a much higher rate (60.2% vs. 51.1%). You obviously don’t want a young player swinging at too many of those pitches, as that can lead to some bad habits. But there are situations in which a hitter needs to fight off borderline offerings or is forced to protect in a two-strike count.

Being a good hitter is all about anticipation and recognition, knowing what a given pitcher will throw in a given situation and then picking up the spin of the pitch to understand what it’s going to do. Educated guesses are nice and sometimes work out, though they can also lead to embarrassing buckled knees and backwards K’s. The hitter who can learn to recognize a pitch (pretty cool visualization of what different offerings look like to hitters) as quickly as possible out of the pitcher’s hand is going to find more success.

It’s nearly impossible for even the best hitters to do anything with an elite breaking pitch, so the key is to understand what you can and can’t hit. His improvement against the slider (from -0.2 to 1.8 runs above average year over year) tells us that Russell is doing a better job of seeing the red dot, though he’s still got room to improve against the curve and cutter (with caveat that different pitch-tracking services classify some cutters as sliders and vice versa).

The impact of better overall recognition on Russell’s counting stats has been obvious, as he’s already surpassed last year’s RBI total and is on pace to surpass last season’s home run and runs scored marks. Some of that comes from hitting higher in the order and getting more opportunities, but as of press time Russell has had 116 fewer plate appearances than he accumulated as a rookie.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the growth in Russell’s game is that it appears highly sustainable moving forward. It’s not bolstered by good fortune or flukey peripherals, but is a product of steady improvement in plate discipline and approach. And we haven’t even talked about the glove. Defense is, after all, the phenom’s true calling card. His ability to play Gold Glove-caliber defense at a premium position will make his increasing offensive production that much more valuable in the future.

I’m generally not one to get into predictions, so I’ll not put anything specific out there at this point. Suffice to say I would not be the least bit surprised to see Addison Russell go on a tear and really break out offensively down the stretch this season or at some point early in 2017. It just feels as though the improvements he’s made at a foundational level are going to manifest themselves in leaps in those box-score numbers we remain so enamored of.

There is a lot to like about what this young man brings to the table already, and I love what the numbers say about his future with the Cubs.

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