Addison Russell had a profoundly weird rookie season. You can tell it was weird, because Russell (a right-hitting, slick-fielding middle infielder who hit for surprising power but struck out a ton) got Christian Yelich (a left-hitting corner outfielder whose standout skill is his pure hit tool) as his fifth-closest PECOTA comp for 2016. Freddie Freeman was the fourth-closest. Jay Bruce was seventh. Other than recognizing him as a good young hitter, then, PECOTA had a hard time nailing down Russell’s profile. Russell’s AL counterpart, 21-year-old Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, played much less of the season in the big leagues, but PECOTA had no trouble finding intuitive comparison points for him: the most bizarre entry in his top 10 is Jose Tabata, the 10th name on the list and a much fairer facsimile of the things Lindor does well, though not his handedness or his position.
The projection system cocks its metaphorical head at Russell in confusion, not because he’s an especially unusual player, but because the system sees players through numbers, and Russell’s numbers were very unusual. They might look pedestrian—Russell hit .242/.307/.389, a batting line eight player seasons from the last three years match almost perfectly.
Addison Russell, 2015, and Closely Comparable Player Seasons Since 2013
There are good reasons to believe that Russell is just the next Simmons, or Bogaerts. They were both young shortstops playing their first full big-league seasons when they matched Russell’s line so nicely. They’re both right-handed hitters. It’s tempting to lump Russell in with them and hope he can match either Simmons’s durable defensive value or Bogaerts’s sophomore breakout.
In truth, though, Russell isn’t the same hitter Simmons or Bogaerts. Here are the same seasons, with different numbers listed:
|Player||Season||Walk Rate||Strikeout Rate||Isolated Power|
Simmons had similar power to Russell, but got to it very differently, with a much less patient approach. Bogaerts shared Russell’s strike-zone control rates, but didn’t show anywhere near the punch Russell did. In fact, Russell stood apart from just about everyone here, either in vital information (Cabrera and Doumit are switch-hitters, Jones a lefty slugging first baseman) or in offensive profile (Jennings, for instance, with his plate discipline but lack of power).
In the end, of course, what most distinguishes Russell is that strikeout rate. If anything, putting these basic stats side-by-side makes Russell look worse than just about all of these hitters. Still, PECOTA is drawn to him; hence the comps to Freeman, Bruce, and Troy Tulowitzki, among others. It seems to sense something below the surface of the numbers, something imperceptible based on simple statistical observation. And it’s right, because Russell’s bizarre rookie stats are the result of a wildly unusual pattern of use by Joe Maddon.
I chronicled the exceptionalism of Russell’s role back in late August, when it looked like he might become the first player in 20 years to take 90 percent of his plate appearances from the ninth slot in the order. He was bumped up a bit down the stretch, so he ended up batting ninth in just 83.6 percent of his plate appearances. Still, not since Gary Disarcina and Mike Bordick in 1998 had anyone spent so much time at the bottom of a batting order. Consequently, he faced relievers in 41.7 percent of his plate appearances, the highest share for any qualifying batter, and the fifth-highest ever.
More importantly (and staggeringly, really), Russell only faced opposing starters for a third time in a game 37 times, good for 7.1 percent of his total trips. That’s not only the lowest percentage of total plate appearances a regular player has ever taken in that situation, but hilariously lower than anyone else. The second-lowest share on record belonged to Stephen Drew in 2013, when he saw opposing starters a third time in 53 games, and 10.6 percent of his total plate appearances. The gap of 3.5 percentage points between those two entries on this peculiar anti-leaderboard is equal to the gap between Drew and the 79th entry on the list, Darwin Barney—also in 2013. The league hit .270/.330/.440 the third time they saw opposing starters in 2015, and Russell got a truly historically low number of chances to hit in those advantageous situations. Instead, he paced the league in facing relievers, against whom all batters hit .245/.316/.386.
The Cubs did a great job faithfully executing a beneficial team-level strategy in 2015. It’s likely that the second leadoff hitter model, which Maddon used Russell to pull off, added a few runs to their ledger. It was a really damaging thing for Russell’s numbers, though, and that’s why, on a team about which PECOTA is generally very bullish, Russell’s stands out as a very tepid projection. PECOTA can see that something is off; Russell’s minor-league numbers are such a mismatch for his rookie numbers in MLB that the system isn’t sure which way to commit itself. Ultimately, though, it has to bend to the dictates of the numbers, and so Russell is projected for a .254 TAv and a very underwhelming, though solid, 1.5 WARP.
Well, that’s part of the reason. We should also talk about Russell’s defense, which FRAA didn’t care for much at shortstop last year, and which PECOTA projects at -3 runs for 2016. Small-sample defensive stats lie all the time, but this feels like an especially unforgivable untruth. The other defensive metrics loved Russell, but those are small samples, too, and I’d be happy to explain them away if the visual evidence were inconclusive.
But it’s not. The visual evidence is not inconclusive at all. In fact, thanks to StatCast, we even have objective visual evidence of Russell’s sensational defensive talent. If Russell’s glove is on trial, the evidence meets the burden of proof, and if it’s simply under the consideration of a committee, well, FRAA is outvoted, 2-1.
Today is an exciting day, because PECOTA is out, and it lets us see so many interesting things about the baseball season to come. In the case of the Cubs’ precocious sophomore shortstop, though, the complexity of developing on the job has created a web too dense for the projection systems to see through to the truth. It’s possible that the Cubs will continue batting Russell ninth this season (though they shouldn’t, and I’ll have more on that soon), disguising his development. It’s possible the adversity he faced in 2015 will slow that development. It’s possible his quietly enormous body will not permit him to sustain his stellar defensive work, or that he’ll put so much energy into a full season of shortstop defense that his bat will fail to progress.
Many things are possible, but given all the skills he displayed and the confounding factors that prevent systems like PECOTA from seeing them, the best bet is that Russell will handily outdo his PECOTA projection. He’s simply better than any statistical cross-section of his big-league debut can convey. Of the many excellent players who now populate the Cubs’ roster, Russell remains the most likely, in my view, to develop into a unicorn, a two-way superstar who can radically change the game for his team any time the ball comes within 60 feet, six inches of him.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.