2016 was a good year for Addison Russell. The then 22-year-old clubbed 21 homers and knocked in an impressive 95 runs, 2nd most in the majors amongst shortstops and the most by a Cubs SS in over a century. Throw in his Gold Glove-caliber defense and there are multiple ways he can help you win a ballgame. However, the young infielder has struggled to hit the ball as frequently as he would like. Even with those power numbers, Russell only hit .238 and finished with three fewer total hits than struggling OF Jason Heyward did last season. Most scouting reports on Russell prior to his debut had him projected to be at or close to a .300 hitter, yet we haven’t seen signs of that yet. Of course the power numbers are nice, but there’s more to RBIs than meets the eye. A lot of it has to do with opportunity, as noted by this table, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
What we’re focusing on is that last highlighted column. That refers to the total number of players who were on base when that particular player was up to bat. As you can see, Russell ranked 5th in all of baseball in that category, which speaks more of the Cubs’ ability to get on base than Russell’s ability to drive runners in. Situational hitting though is a trait every hitter wants to have, so at least Russell has that going for him. However, a better average is something that he should be focusing on. If he keeps cutting his strikeout totals – he had 135 last season, good for a 22.6% rate – then he should see that average start creeping up to where he wants it to be, which should in turn help the players behind him (Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward) have more opportunities themselves to tack on some runs.
Defensively, Russell is a wunderkind. He makes the routine play look so easy, and with his fluid movement, range and strong arm, he can field damn near any ball hit in his general vicinity. In fact, Russell was 8th not among shortstops but ALL of baseball in UZR (ultimate zone rating), which measures what actually happened against what the average player would’ve done on similarly hit balls. And by looking at more advanced stats, we can see that Russell makes nearly impossible plays more frequently than most shortstops in the league. At Fangraph’s Inside Edge Fielding tool, they’ve allocated each ball hit to a defender in certain percentages, with 1-10 percent being the hardest play to make with each increasing percentage signifying easier plays. As Ryan Romano of SB Nation’s Beyond The Box Score noted, the results are surprisingly mixed.
Both of Russell’s 2015 and 2016 stats were used for these particular numbers. As you can see, he’s great at making those impossible-like plays, though he could use some work on those middle-of-the-pack plays. Why he struggles with those plays is certainly a mystery, though his 11 throwing errors between 2015-2016 could be the starting point in figuring out why. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that Russell can more than hold his own at SS.
Russell will most likely start the year hitting fifth in the lineup, where he thrived after Joe Maddon placed him there more frequently at the beginning of August last year. Being that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist are hitting ahead of him, he should get plenty of chances to drive in runs. Whether that average nears that magical.300 or not, Russell will again be key to the Cubs’ success in 2017.
Our 2017 season projections: .255/.330/.420, 23 HR, 85 RBIs, 80 runs / Gold Glove
*Image via Arturo Pardavila III