Where does Addison Russell fit in the structure of baseball's young stars? He was an important part of the Cubs' magical World Series run, sure, but larger names like Kristopher Bryant, Jacob Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and even Joe Maddon command more attention. Russell is one of the best
Where does Addison Russell fit in the structure of baseball's young stars? He was an important part of the Cubs' magical World Series run, sure, but larger names like Kristopher Bryant, Jacob Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and even Joe Maddon command more attention. Russell is one of the best young shortstops, clearly, but given that we're in something of a golden age of young shortstops, the names of Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor must come up before his.
That being the case, Russell currently operates in the odd space where he's both extremely valuable -- thanks to his plus defense, his 6.9 Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs) are the sixth highest among shortstops over the past two years -- yet he hasn't really had that true breakout season, because he's been a slightly below-average hitter in each of his two years with the Cubs. So far, his career line of .240/.314/.404 (93 wRC+, where 100 is league average) is more in line with Chase Headley and Angel Pagan in 2015-16 than it is with the stars above.
So in order to truly break out, Russell has to, well, break out. But what if we already saw that happen to some extent in 2016? And what if, having only turned 23 in January, Russell is perfectly situated to take that next step with the bat that would launch him into the upper echelon of young shortstops? It's possible. Let's explain why.
He's made real strides in making contact
We can throw numbers at you to support this -- and we will -- but perhaps it's easier to merely look at an image. After a relatively slow first two months (Russell was hitting only .246/.339/.377 with four homers through May 31), he began to take off. A big part of that was simply going from a hitter with serious swing-and-miss issues to one who looked more like a league-average hitter.
"Average" doesn't sound impressive, you say? It does when you started from "below average." In Russell's first season, he struck out in 28.5 percent of his plate appearances, well higher than the non-pitcher Major League average of 19.9 percent. You can get away with that when you're a massive power source like Giancarlo Stanton, but not with a .389 slugging percentage like Russell had.
But from Russell's low point at the end of May, after which he hit 17 homers, he managed to cut that whiff rate down to 21.2 percent, which was only slightly higher than average. A higher contact rate equals more balls put in play, and even if there were no change to the types of batted balls, that would help him.
There were changes to the batted balls too, of course. Such as...
There's no slug on the ground
That's a favorite saying of the Cubs, motivated by their hitting coach John Mallee to elevate the ball. After all, while grounders have a higher likelihood of turning into hits, they just about never turn into extra-base hits. If you were to just compare Russell's 2015 to '16, you'd see no change in ground-ball rate, since both seasons saw 41 percent of his batted balls stay on the ground.
That's why it's important to look at a rolling trend for Russell's 2016 season, because you can see the change as the year went on. After topping out in late May -- there's that date again, as he was whiffing and hitting grounders -- Russell managed to get that grounder rate lower and lower, before a slight rebound at the end of the year.
Russell "added a pronounced leg kick last year and this season has steadily held his hands higher," as MLB.com's Phil Rogers wrote last September, and he made further changes in 2016. If the bit about holding hands higher sounds familiar, it ought to, as Boston's Hanley Ramirez did the same thing before laying waste to the American League.
So we've seen a young hitter who made more contact and got the ball off the ground more often. Anything else?
Change of direction
There's also the question of where those balls went, and it's not exactly difficult to see. Compare Russell's April and May to the rest of the season. His rate of pulled baseballs shot right on up.
Gif: See Gif
Now, let's stress that it's not as simple as "it's better to pull the ball," though it's certainly worked for James Dozier, and for Russell, he hit .385 with a .776 slugging percentage when pulling the ball last year. If we limit it strictly to "pulling the ball in the air," then Russell went from doing that 17.6 percent of the time in the first two months to nearly 25 percent of the time after that -- and he hit a scorching .598 with a 1.506 slugging percentage when pulling in the air in 2016.
It's not all roses, of course. Russell's walk rate decreased as the year went on, and his .214/.290/.369 September was probably his weakest month of the year. But again, he only turned 23 in January. You could argue that the 2016 World Series Cubs really got started on the August day in 2015 when Russell shifted over from second base to take shortstop from Starlin Castro, because that's when the outstanding defense began to solidify. Russell's offense hasn't quite caught up yet. But we saw steps forward form a young player with talent last year. All he needs now is to let it happen.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.