Not unlike the Chicago Cubs, Addison Russell’s first half was pretty brutal – especially in light of the expectations.
But that’s obviously not what we expected from him coming into this season. After all, Russell’s offensive production was solid in 2015 (91 wRC+), before walking a bit more and striking out a whole lot less in his follow-up 2016 campaign (95 wRC+).
More than that, Russell hit for a lot more power last season (.179 ISO, .417 SLG, 21 HRs) than he did in 2015 (.147 ISO, .389 SLG, 13 HRs), which set our expectations even higher than they probably should’ve been for the 23-year-old.
In any case, Russell still has plenty of promise and upside in his bat, it just hasn’t shown so far this year … like, at all.
So what’s gone wrong?
Well, let’s start simple. Russell has walked less this season (7.8%) than he has in either of his first two years in the big leagues (combined 8.7%). So let’s take a look at his plate discipline to see if there’s anything there.
Interestingly, Russell is swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone this season (29.8%) than he has for his career. And, as a matter of fact, his 29.8% O-swing rate is almost exactly league average. Similarly, his first-pitch strike rate is down this season, as is his swinging-strike rate.
All else equal, you’d suspect that combination of stats would lead to more walks, not fewer. Of course, not all else is equal. Russell is also swinging at fewer pitches in the zone while making a bit more contact overall. Given that he’s allowing more strikes to fly by while making more contact when he does swing, perhaps it’s not too surprising to see his walk rate drop a bit. Given that he’s essentially maintained his new and improved low strikeout rate, I think it’s fair to say that pitch recognition is not really his problem.
So what about his batted ball data?
First of all, it’s worth noting that Russell’s BABIP this year is virtually identical to last year (.276 versus .277), and his ISO is down only slightly, from .179 to .156. So, in that respect, you wouldn’t necessarily expect significant batted ball differences for him.
And what do you know: as far as his ground/line-drive/fly ball splits are concerned, there’s nothing of interest. Russell’s groundball rate is up a little bit this season, but not alarmingly so (it’s still below league average). His line drive rate is actually up compared to his career and above average overall. His fly ball rate is a fair bit lower than his career averages, but is still above average compared to the league. And, interestingly, he’s absolutely obliterated his infield fly ball rate from 15.5% last season to 5.8% this year (which is a really good sign). The slight drop in fly balls and slight increase in grounders is definitely not helping, but it’s hard to call this the reason for his struggles. Let’s press on.
As our attention drifts to his batted ball data … I find myself still confused about Russell’s results. He is getting almost exactly as much hard contact this season as he has in every other year and has traded a lot of soft contact for medium contact.
Career Soft Contact: 20.6%
2017 Soft Contact: 14.6%
Career Medium Contact: 51.1%
2017 Medium Contact: 57.3%
And while we’re here, it’s worth pointing out that Russell’s spreading the ball to all fields as much as he always has. So, not only is his batted ball data not a reason for concern, it’s actually quite promising. What the hell is going on?
Let’s briefly recap: Russell’s walk rate is slightly down this season, but his plate discipline statistics don’t really show any reason for alarm. His batted ball data is showing that he’s hitting the ball as hard as ever and spreading it out as well as he ever has, even if he’s hitting it on the ground slightly more often.
Your brain might drift towards some potential bad luck, but that .276 BABIP, while low, is almost exactly equal to the .277 mark he posted last season. I suppose with more groundballs and a higher speed rating in 2017 than he had in 2016, you’d expect that to be much higher, but that’s arguably another positive future signal, not an explanation for his struggles.
So then, where does this leave us? Frankly, I’m not sure, unless you are inclined to chalk everything up to the shoulder injury and the off-field issue, even as the underlying numbers don’t necessarily show that.
This appears to be one of those times where the stat line is missing the bigger picture. I’m not 100% sure what’s “wrong” with Russell this season, or why his 75 wRC+ is 20 percentage points worse than what he posted last season, but it appears to be the collection of a lot of factors being just a little bit worse than last year (in a league-wide offensive environment that is stronger). But that same collection doesn’t really look bad.
Perhaps, all this is, then, is reason to expect a big, natural rebound in the second half.
I swear I didn’t set out to come to that conclusion, but you have to go where the data takes you. And right now, Russell’s underlying performance is just not that much worse than his first two seasons. Shrug. Let’s see what happens.
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