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Evaluating Addison Russell’s defense

The Cubs shortstop is a great defender...maybe. It’s kind of complicated.

MLB: NLCS-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers
Russell doesn’t boot too many balls — but don’t let FRAA know.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, the Cubs will take the field for Game 7 of the World Series. After falling behind Cleveland 3-1, Chicago is two-thirds of a way to a comeback, thanks largely to the immensely talented core that brought it this far. Wunderkinds such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Addison Russell helped the Cubs take the league by storm in 2016, and they should continue to dominate for years to come.

At this point, seemingly everyone knows about Bryant and Rizzo. Russell, by contrast, has gone relatively under the radar, despite excelling at a younger age than both of them. As a 21-year-old rookie in 2015, Russell compiled 3.0 fWAR over 523 plate appearances; as a 22-year-old sophomore in 2016, he followed that up with 3.9 fWAR in 598 trips to the dish. In case you don’t have a nose for these things, that adds up to 6.9 fWAR over two years — a sum that inspires a great deal of joy in any baseball fan, no matter their allegiance.

But beneath that success lies a little bit of uncertainty. In FanGraphs’ judgment, Russell has built his value on his play in the field, rather than at the plate. While the latter is generally quite easy to measure — wRC+ tells us that Russell’s hit at a level 7 percent worse than average in his two major-league campaigns — the former can cause some problems, which is where our story begins.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Since the Athletics drafted him back in 2012, Russell’s defense has amazed some scouts and left others a little unsatisfied. That offseason, BP’s Jason Parks wrote that he had “plus-plus actions at shortstop.” Two years later, his successor Nick J. Faleris had a slightly more pessimistic take, asserting that Russell needed to “slow down [his] game in the field” yet still crediting him for “solid actions at short.” MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo followed the opposite trajectory in his analysis: In 2012, he wrote that Russell showed “good hands, a strong arm and enough range;” by 2014, he felt that Russell had “erased any concerns about his long-term future” as a shortstop. A consensus didn’t really exist — nobody thought Russell was a defensive slouch, but opinions diverged on whether he’d stand out in the field.

That was then. This is now, when Russell has two years of experience in the majors. In 2015, he spent most of his time at second, thanks to Starlin Castro’s presence; in 2016, with Castro in New York, Russell stayed at short the entire year. All told, he’s accrued 746.0 innings as a second baseman and 1,734.0 innings as a shortstop, for a total of 2,480.0 frames of big-league fielding. And what has he accomplished in that time? Well, that depends on where you look:

Metric 2B SS Total
DRS 9.0 29.0 38.0
UZR 7.3 21.5 28.8
FRAA -2.5 10.6 8.1

H/t to Rob McQuown for hooking me up with Russell’s FRAA positional splits. Also, my apologies to Russell Carleton for the vague subject line.

As with the scouting, we can’t find an agreement. Both DRS and UZR gauge Russell as an elite defender, one of the best — perhaps THE best — in all of baseball. FRAA, on the other hand, thinks he’s much more pedestrian. The difference between the former two and the latter amounts to at least two wins, which is impossible to ignore. How should we respond to it, though?

When I encounter a dilemma such as this, I usually turn to FanGraphs’ Inside Edge data. The company’s scouts evaluate each ball hit to a defender, putting it into one of six buckets — “impossible” (those with a 0 percent chance of turning into an out*), “remote” (1-10 percent), “unlikely” (10-40 percent), “even” (40-60 percent), “likely” (60-90 percent), and “routine” (90-100 percent). These numbers can act as an informal mediator, sorting out the differences when defensive metrics don’t see eye-to-eye.

*In the five-year history of Inside Edge data, no fielder has ever converted an “impossible” play. Evidently, the name means something.

We’ll start with Russell’s time at second base, to see how well the Inside Edge scouts thought he performed at a comparatively simple position:

Play Remote Unlikely Even Likely Routine
Russell % 15.0% 33.3% 100.0% 87.5% 97.3%
MLB % 3.1% 25.8% 50.0% 77.5% 98.0%
Russell Rank 1 t-9 1 4 25

Rankings among 27 second baseman with 700+ innings in 2015.

Again, it’s a mixed bag. “Routine” plays make up the vast majority of all opportunities that fielders face, so Russell’s failure there — only Kolten Wong and Rougned Odor converted them at a lower rate — would seem to seal his fate. But in every other play that falls outside that category, Russell soared high. He paired a breathtaking ability for the extraordinary with a disappointing (relative) inability for the ordinary.

Perhaps if we turn our attention to Russell’s time as a shortstop, things will become clearer?

Play Remote Unlikely Even Likely Routine
Russell % 10.0% 31.6% 42.9% 83.3% 97.7%
MLB % 2.7% 24.9% 44.5% 73.1% 97.0%
Russell Rank 4 10 16 2 9

Rankings among 22 shortstops with 1,500+ innings in 2015-16.

This elucidates things by quite a bit. At short, Russell has done much better than average on the “routine” plays, while also converting a solid amount of plays on the other end of the spectrum. Still, a quandary remains — why hasn’t Russell done better on the balls in the middle? And wouldn’t a truly superb defensive shortstop place higher than ninth in “routine” plays?

As much as we’d like it to, the Inside Edge data can’t guide us to a firm conclusion. Even if we cherry-pick some visual examples from MLB.com’s archives, the arguments don’t fade. Want a phenomenal catch? Take a look at this one:

How about a slick diving grab? Try this one on for size:

On the other side, maybe your masochistic tastes push you toward an errant throw, such as this one:

Or perhaps you’d prefer a headstrong charge to try and catch a dying quail, as demonstrated below:

Russell is a professional baseball player, so he makes some sweet plays. Russell is a human being, so he messes up sometimes. The former tends to outweigh the latter, but it might not do so all the time. In other words, GIF-based analysis won’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

So what’s our answer — is Russell an elite fielder, or just a decent one? At the end of the day, I think we should hew to the principle of the golden mean, as laid out by the brilliant philosopher Ron Fournier: The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Going forward, we should expect him to dazzle pretty frequently, while having enough miscues to stay a tier below the greats.

Of course, that’s assuming Russell doesn’t improve from here. He’ll turn 23 in January, he has great teammates, and he remains a ridiculously talented baseball player, which means the sky is the limit. Regardless of what happens tonight, or what the state of his defense is, Russell should play a significant role in the budding Cubs dynasty. And hey, if he can keep doing this...

...Cubs fans won’t care too much about his glove.

. . .

Ryan Romano is a contributing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot, and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.