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Other shortstops have spoiled us on Addison Russell

Evaluating his progress independent of the Seagers, Bogaertses, Lindors, and Correas of the world

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell is probably a little overrated. I might get in trouble for saying that, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. He plays arguably the most glamorous position for the defending World Series champions, after all.

There are some people out there — Cubs fans, in particular — who would likely feel comfortable calling Russell an elite player at his position. Those people would put him right alongside Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Corey Seager and Carlos Correa when talking about the best shortstop in baseball. With all due respect to Russell, he’s just not quite that level of player, at least not yet.

That’s the downside of being a part of arguably the greatest collection of young shortstops baseball has ever seen. It’s not really fair when people compare Russell to those guys, because he’s an All-Star-level player. It’s just that those guys are MVP candidates. We appreciate him less when we make that the standard.

Russell is already damn good, of course. I did just call him an All-Star, which is both literally true and deserved based on his play last season. He still has the potential to be as good as Lindor, Bogaerts, Seager, and Correa. He just didn’t seemingly emerge from the womb as a five-win player.

Relative to those guys, Russell’s development has been a slow burn. That’s a crazy thing to say about a guy who debuted at 21 and is still just a few months removed from his 23rd birthday. That’s what makes the golden age of shortstop standard so unfair. It’s amazing that Russell is as good as he is this early, but his peers are such outliers relative to history that we take it for granted.

2017 has been more of the same. Russell hasn’t made the leap from star to superstar, but he continues to take small, incremental steps forward.

We’re not going to talk about Russell’s defense much in this post, because a) we already know Russell is really good on that side of the ball, and b) it’s been a month and I can hardly think of anything more boring that to talk about a player’s single-month defensive performance.

We can talk about his offense, however. That’s interesting, right? It’s where this post is headed either way, so buckle in.

The main thing holding Russell back in his first couple of seasons was an inability to make contact at even a league-average rate. In both 2015 and 2016, he swung at a higher percentage of pitches than the average MLB hitter, while connecting with a below-average percentage of those pitches.

That relative inability to make contact meant pitchers were less afraid of Russell’s two best skills as a hitter: patience and power. Because he hadn’t shown the ability to put the bat on the ball, he’s seen an increasingly higher percentage of pitches in the zone as his career has gone on, from 44.3 percent as a rookie to 49.1 percent in 2017.

With that said, Russell’s plate discipline numbers from this season show he’s making improvements in his ability to put bat on ball. He’s always been pretty good at recognizing balls from strikes — he has a solid 8.5 percent career walk rate, after all — but he’s doing an even better job thus far of choosing to swing if he gets a strike, while laying off balls that are out of the zone.

Addison Russell plate discipline

Year O-Swing Z-Swing Z-Swing - O-Swing
Year O-Swing Z-Swing Z-Swing - O-Swing
2015 29.8% 67.8% 38.0%
2016 31.0% 71.8% 40.8%
2017 25.5% 68.3% 42.8%

At least partially because he’s again improved his pitch selection, Russell currently has an above-average contact rate for the first time in his career, at 78 percent (league average: 77.5 percent). Should he maintain that approach, and keep improving his ability to hit the pitches he does choose to swing at, he will undoubtedly continue to make strides toward becoming a complete hitter.

He’s certainly not there yet, however. Despite those improved plate discipline numbers and a strikeout rate more than six percentage points below his 2016 figure, Russell’s wRC+ current sits at a paltry 83, well below the 95 he put up last year. It’s been only a month, sure, but we just showed that he’s shown some definite improvements over that first month. Something else must have gone wrong, then.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Russell’s sophomore campaign was the power he displayed. Playing the entire season at just 22 years old, he hit 21 home runs, including a scorching July and August in which he clobbered 11 of those homers while putting together a .479 slugging percent that would have made many first basemen jealous.

Thus far in 2017, that power hasn’t really shown up. Russell currently has just two homers, and only 10 total extra-base hits on the season. He’s hitting more like a 1950s shortstop than the 2010s version.

Interestingly, despite what was generally a good offensive season last year, Russell made some swing changes over the winter, most notably dropping the starting position of his hands. You can see the contrast in these two videos, the first from 2016 and the second from this year:

The purpose of a player dropping his hands, ostensibly, is to create a shorter path to the ball. It also gives the player an extra split second to react. Russell is far from the first player to make this specific adjustment, but it could help explain why his power hasn’t shown up just yet.

This change is reflected in Russell’s contact rate. He’s given himself slightly more time to make a decision on whether to swing, and a shorter bat path has allowed him to make better contact when he pulls the trigger.

However — and this is total speculation on my part — I wonder if a shorter swing is sapping some of his power. When people single out a young power-hitting prospect by saying that he needs to shorten up his swing to make more contact, they often leave out the possibility that the length of that swing is what allows him to hit for power in the first place. Not everybody can be Mike Trout: ultra-quick to the ball, yet still as powerful as almost anyone in the game. You can have one or the other, but most players can’t have both.

Perhaps that is what is happening with Russell. Yes, he’s making contact with the ball on a much more frequent basis, but he’s not driving it as often. Then again, his average exit velocity in 2017 would be a career high over a full season. This is just a guess, after all.

Regardless: Russell’s current struggles, these fits and starts, and outbursts of potential followed by a string of 0-for-4s? They’re all normal. For any player, let alone a 23-year-old shortstop. When we change our MLB.tv feed whenever Lindor, Seager or Correa comes up, it can be easy to lose sight of that.

Even if he never gets better than he is right now, Russell will have had an extremely successful major league career. More likely, he’ll continue to tinker and improve. He’ll continue to fulfill at least some of that potential we’ve singled him out for. Maybe he’ll figure it all out and make that leap to MVP candidate.

We don’t know what outcome his career will have, because he’s an unfinished product. These are the types of growing pains most players go through. Just be sure to keep that in mind when scrolling through the shortstop section of your All-Star ballot.

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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.