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Pitch Recognition and a Disappearing Walk Rate Limited Addison Russell in 2017

Chicago Cubs

In 2016, Addison Russell played his first full Major League season with the Chicago Cubs and it was excellent. Playing in 151 regular season games, the 22-year-old shortstop made his first All-Star team, collected 3.9 fWAR, and actually rated as one of the most clutch players in baseball.

Compared to his debut 2015 season, Russell was walking more, striking out less, and was a better overall hitter, defender, and slugger (by the numbers). Things were looking GOOD.

He even notched one of the biggest highlights of the World Series that season, exactly one year ago today:

So, with another year of experience and development under his belt, 2017 figured to be even better, right?

Unfortunately, not quite. In fact, despite the lofty pre-season expectations, I could argue that Russell’s 2017 campaign was a fairly big letdown in the end.

Even if you ignore the off-field issues and lengthy foot injury, both of which cast a shadow over his season (which was limited to just 110 games), this was his worst season – both offensively and defensively – since he was promoted to the Majors, and I want to know why.

First, the easy stuff: In 385 plate appearances this season, Russell, 23, slashed .239/.304/.418, which is good for an 84 wRC+ (previous career mark: 92 wRC+). But despite the overall drop in production, his 2017 batting average and slugging percentage were almost exactly in line with his 2016 numbers (and his BABIP was normal, too). So while that does still mean he didn’t break out in the way we had hoped, it also means that something else was probably more wrong than the balls he put in play (so we’ll come back to that stuff in a bit).

Instead, it seems, Russell’s on-base skills were his biggest obstacle.

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In 2017, Russell’s .304 OBP ranked 36th worst among all Major Leaguers with at least 350 plate appearances. The year prior, his .321 mark was tied for 90th best – which is quite a swing. And although Russell can provide value in other ways (defense, power, etc.), he’s going to have to improve on that mark next season if he wants to take that important step forward – and that’ll start with improving his walk rate.

Russell’s walk rate dropped from an above average 9.2% in 2016 to a below average 7.5% last season, and the reasons are evident in his plate discipline statistics. In short, compared to last season, Russell was swinging at more pitches out of the zone and fewer pitches in the zone than he did in 2016. Put into a reasonable extrapolation, Russell was guessing a whole lot more this year, and wasn’t getting lucky doing it.

The good news is that his zone-contact rate was up, while his first-pitch strike rate and swinging strike rate were both down – all of which helped keep his strikeout rate at a reasonable level (even if it did increase slightly from last season). The bad news is that a hole in your swing is a bit easier to work with than pitch recognition problems, but his previous seasons suggest this can be worked on.

On the batted ball side of things, the picture is much better.

Taking a look through his batted ball data, I’ve noticed that Russell had his best line drive (highest) and ground ball (lowest) rates since coming to the big leagues. Even his infield fly ball rate took an absolute nose dive (which is a good sign for quality contact) from both 2015 and 2016. His fly ball rate was the lowest mark of his career (which isn’t good), but, to be fair, it was less than a percentage point lower than his 2016 mark and still above average overall.

Even more encouraging, Russell’s soft-hit rate dropped to (basically) elite levels (13.8%), while his hard-hit rate was right around average (32.2%). That does mean he has plenty of medium contact, of course, but all things considered, he was clearly striking the ball with authority. One interesting wrinkle to the batted ball side of the game is that his pull rate was down by quite a bit this season, so that could be something he looks to correct before 2018 for more power – but even still his .179 ISO this year was exactly equal to 2016.

One more thing: before his foot injury, Russell looked like he was turning things around at the All-Star break. In the second half, Russell hit .274/.324/.516 (111 wRC+). Let’s call it something to build on.

So where does this leave us?

Well, even if we’re being generous, we can’t honestly say that Russell took that extra, widely-projected step forward this season. Even if you strip out some of the bad luck stuff and the missed time from injuries and whatnot, the numbers just weren’t there. BUT, I’m seeing plenty of reason for optimism.

For one, Russell improved his batted ball data in several meaningful ways (more line drives, fewer ground balls, more hard contact, less soft contact). And for another, he seems to have lowered his swinging strike and first-pitch strike rates, both of which will help him control at-bats next season. And although some apparent drops in pitch recognition have led to lower walk rates and on-base skills, that was a new development this year and not necessarily something he’s struggled with previously.

Given his age, injuries, and other off-the-field issues this season, I think we can probably give Russell some leeway for his offensive numbers. And my best bet – given the peripherals and his obvious talent – is that his production in 2018 is much closer to what we hoped we’d see this year.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami