There’s this narrative that follows Addison Russell around. It’s one of the few things I hear Len Kasper continually echo throughout a season, and it’s that Russell will one day win an MVP.
All things are possible I suppose, but I’ve found it curious to say the least. Curious because I would think it would be awfully hard to win an MVP when you are never going to be more than the third-best player on your team, though I suppose Jimmy Rollins could teach a class on it. Maybe when Rizzo ages in four or five years, Russell could surpass him. But the guy manning third base to his right on the diamond is almost certainly always going to be better.
But hey, winning an MVP is hard. You don’t have to win one to be a great player. So maybe we’ll just settle one day for having the best shortstop in the National League, which you’d obviously have to be to even consider being talked about for MVP.
Well, hold on—there’s that Corey Seager guy who might make that difficult. But again, being in the same neighborhood as what Seager looks like he’s going to be is hardly embarrassing.
However, I think that right now the sights should be lowered. And honestly, they should be lowered to the point that we’ll be delighted when Russell turns into a plus offensive player. Which, quite frankly, he has not been yet.
The buzz around Russell tends to blur our view of him. He was a shocking acquisition, and even more so when you look back on it. For Jeff Samardzija! He has been billed as THE NEXT BIG THING since he arrived in the organization in 2014, and he wasn’t even playing due to injury at that time. His April 2015 call-up carried only slightly less anticipation than Bryant’s.
There are the massive homers from last fall. Two against the Dodgers, the grand slam in Game Six in Cleveland that sent me raging around the bar yelling, “Touchdown!” We won’t forget those. We can’t be helped if it clouds our judgement of him.
But in this time when the Cubs are firmly entrenched in the middle, let’s focus in a bit. Russell is carrying a 73 wRC+. This follows seasons of 91 and 95. These are all below average, and this year is straight up bad.
Now, loving Ad-Rock the way all Cubs fans do, I of course want to run for the port of “bad luck” in this particular storm, and Russell is carrying a .268 BABIP this year, after last year’s .277. That could signal some poor fortune.
But here’s the problem. We know that some players can maintain a higher than average BABIP, either through speed to get infield hits or hitting the ball exceptionally hard. So the opposite must be true as well. And Russell doesn’t hit the ball hard enough to make you think there should be a major correction in his BABIP. At least not at the moment.
This year, Russell’s hard-contact rate is 23.2 percent. His line-drive rate is 20.2. That first figure is 15th worst in all of baseball. The line-drive rate is ok, but it’s a $50 cab ride from other worldly. The line-drive rate is in line with what he’s put up in first two seasons. The hard-contact rate is a massive dip from last year, so at least there’s hope for a rebound simply because sometimes baseball is going to baseball.
So why does Russell struggle to make hard contact so much? Well, like all young players, the league has adjusted to how it’s pitching to him. Last August, Russell appeared to turn a corner. He had a wRC+ of 114, slugged .511 and had an OPS of .811. And then pitchers stopped throwing him fastballs. In September, the percentage of fastballs Russell saw dropped below 60 percent for the first time. The amount of breaking pitches rose to above 35 percent for the first time. And that hasn’t changed this year.
There are signs of hope. Russell is hitting sliders and curves for line drives at a greater percentage that last season. Russell is hitting more fly-balls, and we know that hitters are trying to lift pitches more and more. His pop-up rate has dropped, suggesting he isn’t getting fooled as much or beat with fastballs as badly. He has also dropped the percentage of pitches outside the zone at which he’s offering and is swinging at less pitches overall. Hence, his contact rate is up, which is good. It’s just that contact hasn’t counted for much. And that contact rise has been on pitches outside the zone, which is rarely the kind you make solid contact on.
This isn’t some missive to give up on Russell. That’s crazy. Ludicrous. Poppycock. A traveshamockery! But perhaps it is time to see Russell for what he is, and not what we’ve been told he is automatic to become. And he’s a struggling young hitter who has seen the league adjust to him once. And it’s not clear he’s adjusted back. And it’s a part of why the Cubs offense isn’t quite what we pictured yet.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports