There’s no arguing that it’s been a disappointing start to the 2018 season for Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, but the disappointment actually stretches back to the start of last year.
After breaking into the big leagues as a top prospect in 2015 and taking a big step forward as an All-Star in 2016 (94 wRC+, 21 HRs, 3.3 WAR), Russell backslid last season – not only failing to take that next step forward as an above average bat, but by finishing the year with a slash line about 10 percentage points worse than the season prior (84 wRC+).
And the worst part is that, as the 2016 season proved, Russell doesn’t *need* to have an above average bat to be a valuable player – his defense is just that good. But the thing is, we all really expected him to become a valuable offensive player, too, or at least hold the line. So far, after finishing 2017 batting .239/.304/.418 (84 wRC+), Russell’s early season numbers here in 2018 are actually a bit worse: .250/.326/.333 (82 wRC+).
There’s been a bit of an uptick lately … only sorta.
Over the past 15 days (13 games, 44 plate appearances), Russell has collected three multi-hit games, including two in a row after yesterday’s contest, extending his hit streak to four. Altogether, that’s led to a .300 batting average, which is really good right!? Well …
Despite the additional contact and near-7.0% walk rate during this stretch, Russell has generated a tiny .075 ISO and .375 SLG. To make matters worse, his .333 BABIP is not only much higher than his career .296 mark, he’s arguably not even earning it with hard contact – 27.8 soft%, 16.7 hard%. Ew. I don’t like any of this. So … what the heck is going on?
Well one theory is that Russell is simply trying to make more contact right now, at the expense of some additional power. And in a lot of ways, that’s working – perhaps too well.
Past 15 Days: 65.4%
Russell is offering at fewer pitches out of the zone this year, but as you can see from the numbers above, he’s actually making more contact on those pitches for the season, and especially over the past 15 days. Making contact with pitches out of the zone tends to lead to weak contact – and the weak contact/lack of power is very apparent – so this is a bit more than just a tiny problem. But it’s also not all.
Past 15 Days: 91.3%
Past 15 Days: 81.9%
Here’s an example of something that probably doesn’t seem like a problem at first glance, but could actually be an issue once you dig deeper/make a few assumptions.
As you can see, Russell is also making more contact on pitches in the zone this season, which has, in concert with the out-of-zone contact rate – led to an overall contact rate nearly 10 percentage points higher than his career average. That could be a good thing, or it could be a problem, because making contact was never really one of Russell’s issues – hitting for power currently is. Basically, the numbers suggested Russell is solving a problem that doesn’t exist (his contact rates were pretty close to league average) and is further sacrificing one of his weaknesses (hitting with authority) in the process.
As far as I can tell, there are two plausible explanations for this.
It’s possible that Russell is correctly identifying hittable pitches, but not separating them from drivable pitches – which is the entire crux of selective aggression. Put differently, just because a pitch is hittable – even in the strike zone – doesn’t mean it’s in the Russell’s wheelhouse … but he’s swinging and making contact with those types at a career-high rate anyway. If that’s the case, this issue might be something close to a pitch recognition problem, which can be difficult to address and correct.
The other explanation requires us to think about this in a slightly different way. Follow me for a moment, as you consider your prototypical over-slugger (think 2017 Kyle Schwarber). Last season, Schwarber maintained a huge .256 ISO with a solid 30 homer-season … but struck out over 30.9% of the time. And while it’s more complicated than I’m about to make it, it’s easy to surmise that he was swinging for the fences more often than not, which, sure, results in more power, but also more whiffs.
Well, Russell may have become a bit of the opposite of that in recent days/this season. Not only is his season-long 13.7% strikeout rate well below his career 24.2% mark, it’s dropped to just 11.4% during this 15-day stretch. Those drops are eye-poppingly enormous.
I’m not saying he’s developed a permanent “b-swing” like Anthony Rizzo’s two-strike approach that favors contact over anything else, but something in that direction could be the case. Indeed, if he *didn’t* change his swing to focus on more contact, you wouldn’t expect his contact rates to be so high while his power and strikeout numbers are both so low.
So … is it as simple as just, you know, swinging harder? He’d begin to make a lot less contact and strike out a lot more if he does, but he has room to spare in both regards. Of course, even that is subject to correctly identifying the right pitches to hit. And, let’s be real, it’s undoubtedly more mechanically complicated than just swing harder.
Fortunately, Russell is still very young and has time to figure things out. And – at a minimum – his declining strikeout rate and sky-high contact rates have shown that he is capable of making adjustments.
For what it’s worth, Maddon seems to be on board with how he’s looked lately. “The ball’s going to start going in the seats when things warm up a little bit,” he said via the Chicago Sun Times. “Love the approach. That’s what we’ve been preaching with him. He’s done a great job with it. It hasn’t manifested itself to the fullest yet, but it will.”
Perhaps getting Russell to his fullest might include dialing back the contact a little bit and aiming for a little more power. I can easily envision a scenario wherein the Cubs preached more contact, Russell adjusted, and then adding back in more power is the next step. And maybe, as Maddon suggested, the weather will be little helper in that sense, too.
In the end, I’m not yet worried about Russell, but I would love to believe this has all been on purpose. Because, to be sure, hitting .300 doesn’t mean a whole lot if every one of them are singles.