The Cubs 2014 season was not going well. Better than the previous two seasons, to be sure, but not noticeably so. One of the few bright spots was the pitching of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Cubs, it was expected, would trade one or both of their frontline starters to continue the rebuilding process. As it turned out, both were traded in the same deal.
On July 4, Hammel and Samardzija were shipped to Oakland for a package of prospects centered on 20-year-old shortstop Addison Russell. A’s GM Billy Beane famously told his Cubs counterpart Theo Epstein: “You just got Barry Larkin.” Russell moved quickly through the Cubs system, and by April 21, 2015 he was playing in his first MLB game. By the halfway point of the season, he had supplanted Starlin Castro as the starting shortstop.
Recently, however, some fans have gotten impatient with the young middle infielder as he struggles at the plate. In his last 10 games, Russell is just 6-of-34 with only one extra-base hit and 13 strikeouts. There have even been a few calls to make Javy Baez the starting shortstop. I would like to argue that this is premature, and that Mr. Russell will still be everything he was supposed to be.
Let’s first establish the defensive skills Number 27 brings to the table. So far in 2016, Russell’s UZR of 4.6 ranks him 6th among all shortstops. If we look at old-fashioned stats, the results are very similar. In 114 games at short, the 22-year-old has only committed nine errors. This doesn’t even take into account the highlight-reel plays he offers on a fairly routine basis.
I think it’s fair to say most of the anxiety about the kid revolves around his offensive development. Last season, he had a decent if not spectacular rookie performance at the plate. Russell slashed .242/.307/.389 with 12 homers and 54 runs batted in 2015. In the first two months of 2016, the numbers at the dish are slightly down: .232/.319/.353 with similar HR and RBI paces. So should this downturn be a cause for concern among Cubs fans?
First of all, Addison has been improving his overall plate approach in 2016. Last year, the Cubs shortstop posted a K-rate of 28.5% and walked at an 8% rate. After two months in 2016, Russell has lowered the K-rate to 26.4% and walking in 10.6% of his plate appearances. Clearly the California native is showing increased maturity as hitter.
So if he is improving his approach at the plate, why the drop in average and slugging percentage for Addison Muscle? His hard contact rate has fallen from 27% to 24%, while his soft contact rate has risen from 20% to 23%. A closer look at the data reveals why this might be the case. The Cubs shortstop is making contact 58% of the time on pitches out of the zone, up from 51% season. On the other hand, he is making contact on only 77% of pitches in the zone, down from 82% last season.
Starlin Castro often had a similar issue making weak contact on balls out of the zone, leading to soft ground balls and line drives. I truly believe with more experience Russell’s eye will continue to improve and he will swing less often at balls. As his walk rate increases, he will see his hard contact and fly ball rate increase. As the rates of hard contact and fly balls increase, slugging percentage should rise.
Oh, remember the Barry Larkin talk from earlier? You may be wondering how the Reds Hall of Famer hit early in his career? After a short stint in 1986, Larkin had his first full season in the majors in 1987. Only 23 at the time, Larkin slashed .244/.306/.371 with 12 HR and 43 RBI. Sound like anyone else you know? Just keep the faith Cubs fans, Mr. Russell will deliver soon enough.