Addison Russell’s 2018 season has been full of injuries, power outages, and inconsistencies. Once a 22-year-old shortstop who cranked a grand slam in Game 6 of the World Series and tallied 21 homers in an All-Star season, Russell has been relegated to late-inning defensive replacement duties for the time being.
Bryant expected to be in lineup Saturday, Russell to return initially in late-inning role.
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) August 31, 2018
Russell’s reduced role should come as no surprise for Cubs fans, since new addition Daniel Murphy continues to rake and MVP candidate Javy Baez can play short with aplomb. With Murphy and Russell respectively projected to start in 75 and 25 percent of the Cubs’ remaining games the reigning NL Central champs are projected to win 95 games and secure the division for the third straight season.
The disappointment in Russell’s play goes beyond this season, too. This was a player who was compared to Reds legend Barry Larkin by Billy Beane, the man who traded him to the Cubs. Some even debated whether Russell had a higher ceiling than Kris Bryant. Even with slightly below league-average offense, Russell accumulated similar WAR totals to some of the game’s best shortstops through the age of 24. The sky was the limit for him because fans and executives alike thought he could marry both offense and defense. Ugh, what happened?
For whatever reason, Russell’s power has been completely zapped. No one, not even Russell’s staunchest critics, expected his .179 ISO over the last two seasons to drop to a measly 0.099 in 2018. You can point to his myriad injuries as the reason for a power outage, or you can look at his overall approach change. Call it the “Chili Davis Effect” if you want.
Like other Cubs hitters who’ve increased contact with Davis as the hitting coach, Russell has made six percent more contact on pitches inside the strike zone compared to last season. In fact, this is the first time ever that his zone contact rate (85.8) is at or above the MLB average (85.7). Even Russell’s plate discipline has been better this season, as he has only swung at 30.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, two percentage points better than last season and almost a point better than the MLB average.
Yet maybe it’s the plate discipline improvements that have dampened his power. Maybe, just maybe, he can’t hit for power while also being more disciplined at the dish. Javy Baez certainly figured that out en route to his MVP candidacy this year.
Regardless, time is beginning to dwindle for Russell and the Cubs. Javy transforming into an MVP candidate, David Bote translating impressive exit velocity numbers into a breakout performance, and escalating salaries of several young players are beginning to muddy Russell’s future. But if everything comes together — improved plate discipline, power potential, and stable defensive value — the 24-year-old could still be one of the more valuable infielders in MLB.
For now, he’ll be replacing Murphy et al. late in games as a defensive replacement.