Unless you’re watching an Olympic preamble, you don’t actually see a passing of the torch. Sure, you might have a detached understanding of what’s going on, but it’s incredibly rare that you can actually witness a confluence of events that ushers in a new age in a single moment. More often than not, it’s only in hindsight that such moments can be viewed with any degree of clarity.
Friday afternoon’s game between the Cubs and Giants at Wrigley may provided us with just such a moment though. The stage had already been set by the news that Starlin Castro would be taking a seat, and that it might be for more than just that one game. Enter Addison Russell, the defensive wunderkind who currently ranks #1 among second basemen according to FanGraphs’ defensive metrics.
Mind you, this is while learning the position on the fly. Well, unless you consider a few games at Iowa a sufficient primer for flipping to the other side of the diamond at the MLB level. Russell’s 7.8 Def score and 6.5 UZR top everyone else at his position despite the fact that he’s played at least 75 fewer innings that any others in the top 7. Everyone could see that it was only a matter of time before he made the shift back to the left side.
Still, even those whose support for the incumbent Castro had waned figured the change wouldn’t happen until this offseason so as not to upset the apple cart. And who knows, that may still be the case. While I had been calling for a switch back in early May, it’s unlikely we’ll see Castro at second. But when you’ve got a guy with Russell’s transcendent talent, you have to find a way to get him in position to best leverage it.
That’s exactly what happened Friday, when Russell helped Jon Lester out of a bit of a jam not once, but twice. The first highlight came with the game tied at 1 and with Brandon Crawford attempting to steal 2nd with only 1 out. David Ross fired down to second, but the throw was a good three feet to the right side of the bag. Russell dove to snag the ball, tagging the sliding Crawford as he came up with it.
Fast-forward to the 7th with the Cubs leading 6-2. The Giants had put the first two batters of the inning on base for the dangerous Crawford (do you sense a theme?). Lester was able to induce a weak come-backer, which he fielded cleanly to begin what should have been an easy double play. The pitcher spun and tossed to Russell at second, but the throw was off target and forced his shortstop to dig it from the dirt (theme) shy of the bag. C’mon, Jon, it’s not like it was a pickoff to first.
Without so much as a hitch, Russell glided with preternatural fluidity, dragging his left leg across the bag to get the force and maintain his balance as he fell to his right knee to field the errant throw. No sooner had the ball settled in his glove than he was back up and firing over to first to complete the twin killing. The play stood up to review too, which may have been as much out of respect for Russell’s play as it was for the evidence itself.
Here, why don’t you have another look or five before I continue.
Watching these plays in slow motion almost takes away from them, allows you to watch them unfold and anticipate what will or should happen. But it’s in real-time that the innate brilliance shines brightest, as you see what Russell is able to do without so much as flinching. And because we’ve already seen him make diving and leaping catches in his young career, there could even be a tendency to pass this off as run-of-the-mill.
This isn’t the kind of play you see every day though, and it’s not likely what you will get from Starlin Castro. I’ve often marveled at Castro’s ability to make plays he has no business making, while soon after booting a routine grounder. He’s at his best when he’s not forced to think. In Russell, however, I see a player who’s equal parts instinct and intellect, who is looking two moves ahead while keeping his body in the moment.
Having now taken two games from the Giants, the Cubs have taken back control of the second Wild Card spot and have the opportunity to put a little distance between themselves and the defending World Series champs. When it comes to doing that and to holding onto that playoff berth, the Cubs are going to need to make use of every advantage they can. If it wasn’t clear already, I think Friday’s game showed everyone that one such advantage is having Addison Russell playing short.
It’s been a great run, Starlin, and I will always love you for your amazing debut and that picture of you shushing, but I think it’s time to let Addison run with that torch for a little while.