When the Cubs sent Jeff Samardzija over to the Athletics in a deadline deal, the big piece coming back to the windy city was young shortstop Addison Russell. A potential plus defender with the ability to stick at shortstop, a position where you always need more depth, with excellent contact and plate management skills combined with some power to grow into. He wasn’t the uber-prospect like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, but he was a surefire top-10 in just about any prospect class. For the Cubs to get him in return a for just a year and a half of Shark, it was considered a big win, and a key piece acquired for the rebuild.
Russell’s first taste of the majors came in 2015, where he appeared in 142 games, essentially the entire season. He hit for a 91 wRC+, thanks to 12 homers, a .242 average and about league average power. His mark is a little lower than what you would like to see from such a big prospect. However, at his position, the number is acceptable, and at his age it shows room for growth. What concerned many about his rookie campaign was the evaporation of his mature plate approach, as his strikeout rate jumped to 28.5%, and walking 8.0% of the time. He ended the season a net negative on the offensive side of the ball, with his fWAR of 3.0 buoyed entirely by his defense.
Needless to say, there was a lot of virtual ink being spilled over his slow start, but as 2016 came he improved in some areas to slow down the bust train. His power, just like many other hitters this season, experienced a nice boost to 21 homers with a .179 isolated slugging. Had this been the season before where the league average ISO was .150, this would be a large step in the right direction for the kid. But this year’s average was .162, and while he’s still above it, the variation is not hugely significant. Combine that with a decrease in batting average and Russell looks a little less exciting than he did just a few seasons ago.
But Russell has made some strides in the positive direction as well. His strikeout rate fell nicely to 22.6%, closer to league average, helped out by a 2.6 percentage point increase in contact% (both inside and outside of the zone). And as someone with better contact, power, and zone control often does, Russell also experienced some growth in walk rate – up to 9.2%.
And while it intuitively follows that better strikeout rates lead to better batting average thanks to increased balls in play, Russell saw his average stay almost the same (dropped a few points) thanks to a huge dive in BABIP. He went from marks of .324 to .277 in just one year, suggesting a lot of luck (perhaps in both directions).
As Mike Podhorzer pointed out on FanGraphs, Russell was the biggest overachiever in actual BABIP in 2015 compared to what was expected based off of his batted ball profile and plate discipline. He was expected to be around .280, which is almost exactly where he ended up in 2016. Russell doesn’t hit as many line drives as most (while anything above 20% will just about always regress to the mean, hitters have shown the “ability” to maintain less than 20% liners for extended seasons) and he pulls the ball too often, making him easier to defend.
The numbers are here, the cohorts exist, and the projections are starting to roll in. Russell just turned 23 years old and is still well before his prime years, but just how high can he peak during those remains to be seen. What forecasts are saying so far is not necessarily in the favor of breakout, and instead expect him to stay somewhat stagnant. His wRC+ is not expected by any major projection system to reach league average at 100, while most power projections don’t have him increasing his slugging or homers at all. A large reason for this is his 37.7% fly ball rate. He doesn’t have the peripherals and approach yet to become a legit homer hitter. He has just a 29.3% hard contact rate as well, which takes away the contact doubles that could also help build his slugging percentage.
Overall, with Russell, he’s a guy with tons of potential, but really almost nothing to show for it at the major league level. He’s a decent option based off what he has produced so far, but the hype around him as a prospect absolutely balloons his value too much to even consider drafting.
There really aren’t a lot of tangible things to like about the guy besides his age so far, as most of his draft day positioning can be attributed to name value and prospect hype. He’s someone to stay away from on draft day simply because the price you need to pay to get him requires a breakout far beyond what he’s shown to be within reach yet.
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