In a general sense, it's absurd to visualize a potentially elite talent like Addison Russell being overshadowed. But on a team like the Chicago Cubs, which sports a host of supremely talented youngsters to go along with recent significant additions, that's exactly the situation in which the shortstop finds himself.
Not that that fact will have any sort of bearing on his performance, but the plate appearances of Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and Kris Bryant will definitely grab national attention; Russell has achieved some notoriety with the glove, but he has yet to accomplish it with the stick. And if the adjustments that Russell made at the plate in the middle of his rookie campaign last year are any indication, we could see an offensive surge to join that already elite glove.
It'd be ridiculous to mention Addison Russell without at least providing a brief glimpse at his defense. Though he had seized the starting shortstop gig in the latter part of the year, Russell spent the majority of his time in 2015 at second base (746 innings at second vs. 471.1 at short). As a second baseman, he posted the third-highest Def rating, at 8.5, to go along with a 13.6 UZR per 150 and nine Defensive Runs Saved, the latter of which was the fourth-highest total in the league.
His time at short featured more of the same for the Cubs. His UZR/150, while not a perfect representation of his play there (it never is), was all the way up at 20.4. He added another 10 DRS at short, the fourth-highest total there. Between the two spots, he recorded 55 outs on plays out of his zone, demonstrating great range, which is evident to anyone who's seen even just one highlight of Russell in the field from last year. And making his top-notch defense even better are the adjustments he made at the plate.
After his callup at the tail end of April, Russell appeared in 71 games in the first half of the season, followed by another 70 in the second half. In a relatively basic sense, those numbers between the two halves looked like this, with 243 first half at-bats against 232 ABs in the second half:
|1st Half (71 G)||.226||.296||.128||31.1%||8.2%|
|2nd Half (70 G)||.259||.318||.168||25.8%||7.8%|
There's a clear uptick, seemingly across the board, in those numbers. We'll examine some other figures here in a second. Around the midway point of the season, or at least as much of a "midway point" as the All-Star break is concerned, Russell made a rather significant change to his stance and subsequent swing. And those changes, which are illustrated below, are largely to thank for the improvements that resulted from a statistical perspective.
That's Russell's stance in his second game of the season. This particular at bat was the one in which he recorded his first career hit, a single up the middle. This next screenshot is Russell in a game in late August against the Atlanta Braves, in which the changes had already gone into effect.
While the untrained eye may note only slight changes to the stance before the swing, the stance change is fairly significant. Looking specifically at his hands, he brings them down. The bat is more straight up, and his hands are at a point where he can load more straight back, instead of having to come down at the ball and over-adjust. His stance is also far less open. All of this culminates in his getting to the ball faster than he would have with that swing in the first half.
There's the swing in action in the first half (excuse the weak GIF game on my part). There's a lot more emphasis on the arms and trying to get those through the zone. That contrasts with his second-half stance, where some of the groundwork is already laid and he can get those hands to the ball quicker. This results in a more compact stroke, which subsequently led to more success at the plate for Russell in the second half.
Here's that swing in the second half:
Again, the hands are quicker to the ball, and because his stance isn't as open, he's able to generate more power from his base. That leads to him flashing the power like he did in that particular at bat.
From a statistical standpoint, the numbers improve. The first and second half numbers listed before are a small glimpse, but provide enough insight to help make that case. Where we really see the improvements made by his stance and swing adjustments, though, come in the form of his batted ball and plate discipline numbers.
|1st Half (71 G)||41.3||20.0||38.8||22.5||53.8||23.8|
|2nd Half (70 G)||40.9||16.5||42.7||18.3||51.5||30.2|
The declining groundball rate will likely be a bit more significant in the long-term, as those changes continue to go into effect, given that Russell's changed stance means he isn't swinging down at the ball so much. So it's only natural, and perhaps beneficial, that that number comes down. His linedrive rate didn't change significantly, but the uptick in his flyball percentage was nice. Especially if you're of the belief that as Russell continues to grow and develop, his strength will increase, leading to a nice uptick from his 11.4% homer to flyball ratio.
Perhaps the most telling number out of all of this, though, is the rise in hard contact rate. Russell saw a nearly seven percent increase in hard hit balls in the second half of the season. Leveling out his hands and shortening that step allowed him to maintain that compact swing and led to some awfully solid contact.
Of course, there are other aspects that could go a long way toward improving his overall offensive game. Cutting down on the strikeouts (which he did to an extent, with 66 second half K's against 83 in the first half) would be a nice way to start. Part of that is adjusting to major-league pitching. With nearly a full season of that under his belt, we could see that adjustment take place early on.
We've already seen the power from Russell this spring. Sample size be damned (just 10 official ABs on the books to date), he has a pair of homers to speak of in the first week of the exhibition season. One of those was a moon shot that Sloan Park couldn't even contain. The stance and swing changes are just as evident in that swing as they are in the ones above. And if that's any indication, we should see a whole lot more of it from Addison Russell throughout the 2016 season.
**Russell swing footage via Chicago Cubs Highlights (YouTube)
***Statistics via FanGraphs
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.