Scouts and writers alike have been critical of Addison Russell’s contact rate over his first two years in the league. Even I was slightly concerned about it at one point, especially since Russell doesn’t have the same pop that other hitters with low contact typically exhibit. My anxiety has long since vanished, though, replaced by giddiness over Russell’s potential as he continues to mature into one of the game’s most elegant shortstops.
Russell’s 71.1% contact rate as a rookie was about 10% lower than the MLB average. That shortfall came as a surprise because he struck out at less than a 17% rate in AA and AAA. Upon his promotion to the Bigs, Addy’s propensity to whiff ballooned his strikeout rate to 28.5%. So many strikeouts for a player who doesn’t mash 40 homers is undesirable because the probability of an at-bat producing value is not high.
What’s more, his contact rate plummeted below 65% as the 2015 season drew to a close (see FanGraphs image below).
Despite that drop, I was still upbeat about Russell’s prospects because players his age usually improve their contact by an average of 2% the following year. Prior to 2016, I calculated that a 2% increase in contact and a natural increase in power could lead to a .340+ wOBA. Wouldn’t you know it, Russell increased his contact rate to 73.7% and his xOBA (expected wOBA) was .332 last year. Pretty close!
Looking ahead to 2017, traditional aging curves suggest Russell could improve his contact rate once again. But the reality is that his improvement might actually be greater than those projections, for several reasons.
First, Russell’s contact-rate improvements in 2016 came toward the latter portion of the season. From August to October, he pushed up to around the league average of 78%. The fact that he ended the season on a high point suggests that he could be establishing a new normal for himself.
Second, perhaps more importantly, just look at the mechanical changes Russell’s made since he debuted. We can actually see that he made an adjustment in the second half of 2016, which correlated to a much higher contact rate. Though you can see the tweaks in the below GIFs, I nudge you to click on the link above to actually see his complete evolution.
Third, Russell’s contact improvement has not come over a small sample size. Contact rate stabilizes at roughly 100 plate appearances, meaning we can reliably say that his sample between August and October is more about talent than randomness.
All in all, if Russell’s defense truly is this good — and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t — then…oh boy. I don’t want to get you too excited or make you believe I’m being unrealistic, but Russell actually living up to even his .332 xOBA would be worth around 5 WAR. By continuing to make this much contact and naturally improve his overall discipline, he could easily produce even more wins.
And he’s only 23 years old. Gah!