On Saturday afternoon, Addison Russell stepped up the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in a tie ball game with the Washington Nationals.
The Cubs had already taken the first two games of the series on Thursday and Friday, but Saturday’s contest was still up for grabs.
After checking the runners, Nationals pitcher Shawn Kelley reached back and delivered a low and away 2-2 pitch … that Addison Russell hit down the right field line, landing right in front of Nationals star Bryce Harper: a two run double. The ball came off the bat at 95 MPH, scored two runs, gave the Cubs the lead, and ultimately won the game for Chicago.
Now that, was a moment.
That wasn’t just one shiny, but fleeting, offensive moment for a young shortstop who finds sole value in his work with the glove. Instead, that was the tipping point of an offensive explosion for Addison Russell that he’s carried into today.
Since the start of the Nationals series, Addison Russell has been scorching hot (and I don’t just mean for him or even for a shortstop). Across those games, he’s slashed an incredible .429/.500/.714 (.492 wOBA) with four singles, four doubles, a triple and five walks (2 intentional) in just 24 plate appearances(!).
That stretch has pushed his season line up to .264/.383/.406 on the season, which is good for a .340 wOBA and 108 wRC+. But I think you read that too quickly, so I’m going to slow things down for you: Addison Russell, the Cubs barely-22-year-old shortstop with legitimately Gold Glove-calibre defense has a .380+ on base percentage in about 130 plate appearances. We were always aware of his potential to be a 4-5 win player, but it may be happening now, in 2016, right in front of our eyes.
What’s more encouraging is that this offense breakout has coincided with a change in approach. But before we get to that, let’s back up just a tad.
Every season, multiple players from every team have a stretch of blistering hot baseball, not unlike the stretch Russell has had here with the Cubs. Sometimes, those stretches turn into prolonged, sustainable success, and sometimes they’re nothing more than a blip from their existing performance, projections and expectations. There are many ways to separate fact from fiction (not all of which we’ll get into right now), but the two I want to discuss today are 1. Pedigree and 2. Actual Changes.
I’ll skip briefly through number one, even, because by now, most of us know Addison Russell’s story. Before coming to the Cubs, Russell was a top five prospect in all of baseball with the Oakland A’s (often just a spot or two behind Kris Bryant, as a matter of fact). After being traded to the Cubs, he continued to be a top prospect, slashing .284/.335/.483 across AA and AAA at a very young age in 2014 and 2015. Despite those solid offensive numbers, nearly all scouts agreed that his potential was much, much higher. So, in short, Addison Russell’s past scouting expectations and projections are very well supportive of this recent offensive boom.
Number two, however, is what interests me the most right now. Sometimes, a batter just needs to keep doing what they’re doing and let the results naturally work themselves out. But other times, like Kris Bryant’s effort to level out his swing over the offseason, a single mechanical, structural, or whatever change in approach at the plate can go a long way towards fixing and/or identifying a weakness.
Addison Russell has made a change in his approach and so far, the results have been stellar.
Here’s what hitting coach John Mallee had to say, via Chris Kuc at the Chicago Tribune: “(Russell) wanted to get a little more movement and help with his timing so he added a leg kick and it’s helped him with his timing and loading his hips and being more on time with pitches.” That’s a definitive change in approach at the plate. A pronounced leg kick is no small change, either, so it’s nice to see it paying off, almost immediately. Mallee lated added that the leg kick helps him stay in motion longer and read the pitch while he’s moving forward.
Welp, Addy, it’s been working.
“His propensity to get big hits is unbelievable,” Joe Maddon told the Tribune. “And now he’s using the whole field. He’s not chasing balls out of the strike zone.” Indeed, as Maddon suggests, Russell’s plate discipline has been much better in 2016 than it has been in years past.
- 2015: 28.5%
- 2016: 20.3%
- 2015: 8.0%
- 2016: 14.8%
O-Swing % (Swing rate at pitches out of the zone)
- 2015: 30.3%
- 2016: 25.4%
Z-Swing % (Swing rate at pitches inside of the zone)
- 2015: 70.1%
- 2016: 73.7%
Those first two are self-explanatory, but the second two require some highlighting. In English, Russell is swinging at fewer would-be balls (pitches out of the zone) this year than he did in 2015, and he’s swinging at more would-be strikes (pitches in the zone) this year than he did in 2015. Those may seem like small changes, on their own, but taken in concert with an improved approach at the plate, a long history of expected success, and actual, tangible results on the field, things are looking up for Addison Russell.
Last Saturday, was just the most recent example of that.
Regarding the clutch hitting, Russell, himself, told the Tribune: “I just try to slow the game down and do my best to perform out there and just try to have some fun with it. All I want to do is just come through.”
And come through he has. It has already been a pleasure watching this guy grow into his own at short and I look forward to his continued explosion at the plate, as well.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.