Just four years ago, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was starting for the Pace High School Patriots, en route to being drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the first round of the 2012 MLB draft.
Last year, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was one of the best defensive players in baseball, netting 2.9 fWAR as one of the youngest players in MLB.
With excellent defense and plenty of room for projection at the plate, Russell – like the Cubs – has a big season ahead of him, and is expected to contribute in very meaningful ways. And while that doesn’t mean you should expect immediate improvements in 2016, you might not have to worry too much about him, either. Theo Epstein doesn’t.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations said, per a great Jerry Crasnick profile on Russell at ESPN, “He’s our youngest player, but he might be the one we worry about the least.”
Joe Maddon and Ryne Sandberg expect very, very big things from the young shortstop, each dropping comps in the Crasnick article that will make you drool.
Ryne Sandberg: “He reminds me of a young Barry Larkin.”
Joe Maddon: “I can only compare him to Derek Jeter.” (Maddon seemed to be speaking primarily defensively, but it’s still a fun comp to explore. So we will.)
Larkin, of course, is a comparison we’ve heard before from Russell’s former GM Billy Beane. And, if you’re unaware, that is *quite* the compliment. In his 19-year, Hall of Fame career, Larkin was a twelve-time All-Star, nine-time Silver Slugger, three-time Gold Glover and one-time MVP. Jeter also had a 19-year career, with fourteen All-Star nods, five Silver Sluggers and five Gold Glove awards. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame soon enough.
If Addison Russell has half the career of either of those two gentleman, the Cubs would have themselves a prize. It is unfair, though, to compare a 22-year-old shortstop to some of the best shortstops in MLB history. Or, rather, it’s unfair to compare the prime of the veterans’ careers to Russell’s 21-year-old rookie season.
Lucky for us, both Jeter and Larkin had their rookie seasons at a similar age (22), so let’s see how the three stack up:
1986 Barry Larkin: .283/.320/.403 – 3 home runs – .318wOBA .94 wRC+ (41 games)
1996 Derek Jeter: .314/.370/.430 – 10 home runs – .354 wOBA – 106 wRC+ (157 games)
2015 Addison Russell: .242/.307/.389 – 13 home runs – .304 wOBA – 90 wRC+ (142 games)
Offensively, there’s no question that Jeter takes the cake. His overall batting line is very impressive, especially by today’s standards, but, remember, that was an entirely different offensive era. His .354 wOBA yields a wRC+ of just 106 (or six percent better than league average. In 2015, Adrian Gonzalez had a similar .354 wOBA, yielding a sizable 129 wRC+ (or about 29% better than average). Obviously Jeter went on to have a fantastic career, but offensively, he and Russell aren’t too far off.
Unfortunately, advanced fielding statistics are not available before 2002, so we’re gonna have to do this the very old fashioned way:
1986 Barry Larkin: 306.2 innings – 4 Errors – .976 Fielding Percentage
1996 Derek Jeter: 1,370.2 inning – 22 Errors – .969 Fielding Percentage
2015 Addison Russell: 471.1 innings (at shortstop) – 4 Errors – .981 Fielding Percentage
In addition to having the highest fielding percentage among the three listed above, Russell was tied for the fourth most defensive runs saved from shortstop AND the fourth most defensive runs saved from second base in 2015.
Together, his total DRS from both spots (19) would be tied for seventh best in baseball. His 17.1 DEF (if they combined his time at SS and 2B) would be tied for fourth most in baseball, behind just Kevin Kiermaier, Andrelton Simmons, and Adeiny Hechavarria!
Suffice it to say, Russell was a defensive stud in 2015, plausibly comparable to guys like Larkin and Jeter, and could get even better.
Just like you should never project an outlier, you shouldn’t get into the habit of placing lofty MVP-tier comparisons on 22-year-old MLB sophomores. They’re just so hard to live up to. The two players above, for example, had some of the longest, most successful careers in baseball history.
Whether or not Russell ever comes close to that stratosphere is yet to be determined, but it sure looks like he has a chance, and I can’t wait to watch him try.
For much more on Russell, where he came from and the road ahead, check out Crasnick’s profile at ESPN.