The historical start of the Chicago Cubs has seen no shortage of contributors. From Anthony Rizzo all the way down to David Ross, it's certainly been a delicious treat to watch this team early on in the season (provided you're not a fan that resides in either the greater Pittsburgh or St. Louis areas). Somewhat surprisingly, right in the middle of the high velocity machine from the North Side is Addison Russell, who appears to be in the midst of what could very well pan out to be a breakout 2016 campaign.
We touched on Addison Russell earlier in the year, back during the spring exhibition season. In that particular piece, I noted the overhauled swing to which Russell transitioned in the second half of last season. In lowering his hands in his stance (since 'dropping' his hands would have a significantly more negative connotation), he was able to get to the ball quicker and make higher quality contact. As such, his bat has spent the early part of the year catching up to what we already knew was a potentially elite glove.
On the surface, Russell's start wouldn't appear to be anything remarkable. He's slashing .254/.358/.429/.787, striking out 20.9 percent of the time, and has a wRC+ of 107. Ho-hum. At the same time, though, while those aren't mind-blowing numbers, Russell has demonstrated marked improvement across the board, which could certainly indicate that breakout-type campaign I mentioned is something that could be on the horizon.
The following compares Russell's numbers from last year in various categories, across 523 plate appearances, to his plate appearances through almost the first two months of the 2016 campaign:
Now obviously it's silly to sit here and make comparisons between 500+ plate appearances from last year and a far smaller sample to date in 2016 and be able to draw any legitimate conclusions. Nonetheless, the steady improvement across the board as a result of a process change speaks to the adjustments paying real dividends for Russell. And when we dig deeper, the numbers continue to favor his growth as the season wears on.
What was already a quality approach at the plate appears to have improved from last year up to now. His pitches per plate appearance has dipped just barely, from 4.12 to 3.99, but he's improved his actual pitch selection. His swing percentage on pitches outside of the zone has fallen from 30.3% to 27.6%. His overall Swing% has decreased ever so slightly, down 0.6 from last year to a 47.4 percent mark. Subsequently, his swinging strike rate has fallen from 13.7% to 12.0%. That 12.8 percent walk rate, up over four percent from last season, isn't anything to scoff at, either.
Below is a visual aid that helps to illustrate that decrease in overall hacks. While he's developed something of a penchant for swinging at breaking pitches (something we'll touch on later), he's at least demonstrating improved patience against hard and offspeed type pitches.
With the continually improving approach, his ability to make quality contact is also improving. While his hard contact percentage is identical to what it was a year ago, at 27.1 percent, he's cut down on soft contact (from 20.4% a year ago to 18.8% now). But the new swing from last year really comes into play on his ability to make line-drive contact, with a line drive rate sitting at 22.3 percent, up four percent from a year ago. He's driving the ball to all fields as well, going oppo just over 35 percent of the time, the second highest rate of any shortstop in baseball.
If there's an area in which Russell can demonstrate improvement, it's laying off the breaking pitch, which he's been entirely susceptible to early in the season. He's been baited on those breaking pitches on several occasions throughout the year, as illustrated above, where he's experienced the increase in swings against. That's why his whiffs look something like this:
That's a whole lot of red down in the zone, right where those breaking pitches have a tendency to hit the glove. That's an adjustment that Russell could certainly make as the season wears on, and if he does, we should continue to see that consistent development and progress take place for him.
That's really the thing about Addison Russell: Development is still taking place. He's shown considerable improvement not only from 2015 to 2016, but from April of 2016 to May of 2016. That swing adjustment is paying off, as is the continued experience at the big league level. He's developing into a completely professional hitter, which is a terrifying thought for the opposition when you're already facing the likes of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
And we haven't even touched on his defense, where Russell had already established himself among the game's best at the position, even before the season got underway. He's at four Defensive Runs Saved, good for fourth among National League shortstops, and has gone for an 11.9 UZR/150. FanGraphs has him at a 4.9 Def rating, which also ranks fourth among NL players at the position. Of course, defensive metrics have small samples this early in the season, but the numbers are not telling a different story. Russell is continuing to develop into a well-rounded stud for the Chicago Cubs.
Last season, Addison Russell's triumphs were primarily limited to the North Side of Chicago, in terms of their scope. There were flashes of the upper tier player that he could become, certainly, but it wasn't until early on this season that we're really seeing Addison Russell come into his own as a Major League shortstop. That growth is being noticed on a national level, thanks to his early season performance that has him out to 1.3 fWAR, setting him on a pace to eclipse his 2.9 mark from a year ago. While it's unlikely he'll recognize his full potential, which is vast, by year's end, this continued development should be yet another exciting element for a team that's already perhaps the most exciting in baseball.
**Statistics via FanGraphs
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.
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