A while ago, a columnist in Boston wrote an article charging that Kris Bryant is overrated. I wrote a refutation of it, noting that Bryant just isn’t the kind of player that columnist wants him to be; he’s something different. He’s tremendous, a superstar who figures to be a vital part of the Cubs for another half-decade.
One thing did strike me as strange, though. In the comment thread attached to the article I wrote, a few readers made note of the fact that Bryant is playing just his second season in the Majors. Their implication (sometimes more) was that Bryant should be expected to improve significantly from here. That’s an understandable assumption; Bryant has adjusted well throughout his big-league career to date. To be sure, a lot of players do improve over their first three or four seasons.
On the other hand, the inexperience thing can often be overstated. The learning curve works differently for everyone, and in particular, the older a player is, the less likely they are to improve (or at least to improve much) after they reach the Majors. Bryant is of roughly average age for a talented rookie, and for a phenom of his caliber, in this day and age, he’s a bit on the old side. People are fond of noting that Bryce Harper is younger than Bryant, by almost a full year. Manny Machado is also several months younger. On the Cubs’ roster alone, Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler are all younger than Bryant—some narrowly, some by over two years.
The point here is that youth and inexperience are distinct. They’re often treated as proxies for one another, and there’s a tendency to mentally pair one with the other, but the truth is that they should be considered separately when evaluating any player.
That brings me to Addison Russell.
Russell is a valuable and impressive young player; no one seems to disagree with that. He placed 31st on Dave Cameron’s annual ranking of players throughout MLB by trade value. He’s been heralded for his power and his fielding in the Majors, after receiving rave reviews as a pure hitter in the minors. He started the All-Star Game for the National League, though that was a result of fan voting, and he might not have made the team at all if not for those fans. There’s a persistent sense, though, that Russell has some flaws. His strikeout rate (26.5 percent in 890 career MLB plate appearances) has drawn criticism. When people talk about the game’s best young shortstops, there are distinct tiers. The highest tier consists of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, and Corey Seager. All four of them rated among the top eight when ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the best 25-and-under players in baseball. Seager, Correa, and Lindor were among the top five in Cameron’s trade value ranking, and Bogaerts was 20th. Russell belongs to the next tier, according to many observers.
I’m not sold. Russell is young—that much, you knew. He’s just 22 this season, and qualified for the batting title as a 21-year-old rookie last year. Since 1988, Russell is one of just 23 position players to meet that playing time criterion at 21 or younger, so he’s remarkable for his youth.
However, even adjusting for that youth, Russell is also exceptionally inexperienced. Of those 23 young rookies called upon for full-time duty, 15 had more minor-league plate appearances than Russell’s 1,087. The median number of minor-league PA prior to reaching the big leagues, for the entire group, was 1,312. Nine players, even in this selected sample of players who ascended quickly enough to establish themselves in the big leagues at a young age, had at least 1,500 PA in the minors before they did so.
Not Russell. He battled an oblique strain (in 2013) and a hamstring issue (in 2014), so in three previous seasons prior to 2015, he’d had 244, 517, and 280 plate appearances, respectively. Then, in April 2015, failure and injuries forced the Cubs to call on Russell much sooner than they had intended or wanted to. Less than a month (and just 46 plate appearances) into his tenure with the Iowa Cubs, he was promoted to Chicago.
The funny thing about that promotion, though, is that while the Cubs needed Russell from a positional perspective (they didn’t maintain middle-infield depth with any intentionality over the course of their rebuild, so they had almost no viable alternative to Russell at second base), they didn’t need him as a hitter. Kris Bryant had been called up several days before Russell, joining Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Chris Coghlan, Starlin Castro, Miguel Montero—generally speaking, a solid lineup. That lineup would have periods of struggle, before finding its gear in the second half, but the fact is that Russell was a non-essential piece of the puzzle for the Cubs offense. Thus, Joe Maddon batted him ninth. reasoning that batting him eighth (in front of the pitcher, rather than behind) would only result in him seeing a lot of careful pitching and either falling into bad habits or missing chances to develop as a hitter.
Because of Maddon’s decision, though, Russell remained fairly inexperienced even at season’s end. In 142 games, he came to bat only 523 times. Since 1988, only 44 players 25 years old or younger have amassed 500 or more plate appearances in a season while taking 3.7 or fewer plate appearances per game played. Only two have done so at 21 or younger: Russell, and Jose Guillen in 1997. Guillen got there by hitting low in the order and frequently being lifted for defensive reasons late in games. Russell did it just by hitting ninth almost every day.
So here’s Russell, in 2016, with a True Average pushing .280, and he looks fundamentally inferior to Correa (.301 TAv), Lindor (.294, with the only glove in this group better than Russell’s), Seager (.324), and Boagerts (.287). But he’s not as far along, developmentally, as they are. Bogaerts has over 1,500 more professional PA than Russell, and is almost a year and a half older. Seager, at almost an identical age, has almost a full season’s worth of professional PAs on Russell. Lindor is a few months older than Russell and has some 900 more professional PAs. Correa is the only one in relative lockstep with Russell, being about five months Russell’s junior, and having only a month or so of pro experience over Russell. The proper comparison point with Russell at the moment is to Seager a year ago, Lindor a year ago, Bogaerts a year ago. Placing things in that context, it’s easy to see the case that Russell is ahead of all of them.
One could extend this argument to say that, because of Russell’s youth and inexperience, he might also have an especially dramatic series of improvements remaining in front of him. I don’t want to assume that. It is worth noting, though, that Russell has an OPS north of .800 over his last 100 plate appearances; has cut down his strikeout rate substantially with each passing month; is finally figuring out how to hit left-handed pitching; and has begun to more consistently show off his excellent pure hitting ability, cutting down or modifying his swing when behind in counts or to stay on tough off-speed pitches. Russell’s true star turn hasn’t even happened yet. He’s not Correa, and he might not be Lindor, but he’s got every chance to be Barry Larkin to Seager’s Cal Ripken (that is to say: very good, if not in precisely the same way), and he might already have surpassed Bogaerts. The extremeness of Russell’s youth and inexperience is a hard thing for which to properly adjust. If you don’t see a superstar happening when you watch Addison Russell at work, you’re underrating him.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.