Addison Russell’s defensive gem in the 9th inning of Tuesday’s win reminded Cubs fans how important a plus-glove at shortstop is for any title contender. Without defense that steals occasional hits, doesn’t give away outs, shortens innings and prevents runs, a championship is nearly impossible.
I wrote about this in July and I imagine every Cubs fan who saw Russell’s play has a sense of this. But no matter how many times it was shown, fans probably still don’t know how technically spectacular Russell’s “Ryan Braun play” really was.
This is because even though the WGN broadcast showed replays from four different cameras, it did not capture the best angle of it. Only the Fox Sports Wisconsin TV feed had a camera trained solely on Russell for the play’s entirety. Those of you with an MLB.TV subscription can see that full replay here starting at the 2:59:00 mark. For the rest of you, let me break it down here.
The critical element missed by the Chicago cameras was Russell’s initial anticipatory hop and first steps. He actually made a short half-step/hop to his right and toward the hole just as Braun made contact. The freeze-frame doesn’t do it justice, but you can see his adjustment below.
This probably moved his left foot just eight inches to the right, but because he also opened up with his right foot and hip, he could make his first official post-contact step faster while being a few inches closer to the final point of the catch.
Much is said about athletic instincts, but most often when people observe that a player’s “instincts just took over,” what they are referring to are reflexes. Anticipatory first steps like Russell’s, however, aren’t reflexive at all. Some roughly call them educated guesses, but I prefer “drilled premonitions.”
It works like this: Because Russell has played so much shortstop, has seen so many pitched balls to different hitters, and has seen so many at-bats by Braun, he’s developed a sense of what was possibly about to happen. When he saw Pedro Strop’s 89 mph cutter go straight down the middle of the zone, Russell anticipated Braun would pull the ball.
He didn’t know exactly how the ball would be hit, just that it was probably headed toward the hole if it was coming his way. And since he’d made that hop, Russell did not start this play standing still and relying completely on his fast-twitch muscles. No, he had momentum going in the direction of the ball and his hips were already open to start closing the distance.
Combine this jump with his very quick first step. Even though Braun rockets the ball at 102 mph, Russell was still able to cover another 1½ steps before fielding it.
To cover that much distance in so short a time cannot happen without the hop. Without the hop, maybe he dives and knocks the ball down, something not all shortstops could do. Even fewer would cleanly glove the ball.
Of course, Russell didn’t need to make a traditional dive on this play. Instead, he left his feet only to angle himself back into the outfield grass (next image below) to give himself some extra distance from the bounce of the ball. That in turn afforded him an extra fraction of a second to read it.
This ball did bounce high, something Russell probably anticipated to a degree knowing his home infield. He also would have expected major topspin from a high-launch-angle power hitter like Braun. It did seem the ball bounced higher than expected, but that’s always preferred by infielders to one that scoots surprisingly low.
A more spectacular execution of this catch would have involved a full-extension, parallel-to-the-ground dive. However, Russell’s great jump and first step obviated any need for this. Not to mention diving full-out for this ball probably gives him no chance to throw the runner out.
Because Russell was not flat on the ground, he was able to get up and transfer the ball at the same time. This shaved just enough precious nanoseconds for Russell’s throw to barely nip Braun.
Even then, a perfect stretch from Rizzo was needed. But here we can also see Russell’s contribution. The throw is perfectly accurate, allowing Rizzo to step straight to it for a maximum stretch. No reaching high or at an angle away from the bag.
In this way, the play incorporated a series of masterful techniques that few shortstops currently possess. There was Russell’s anticipatory hop. The quick, powerful first step and covering a step-and-a-half to the right. The slight fall back toward left field to get a better angle on the bounce. Then getting up and making a strong, perfect throw.
Cubs Insider’s Brendan Miller gave some good statistical background in his quick piece this morning. This included noting that Statcast rated Braun’s shot as having a hit probability of 68 percent.
I tend not to go too deep into probability percentages, but when you watch Russell’s play in its entirety, I doubt more than five major league players in 50 could make it. Probably Andrelton Simmons, Francisco Lindor, Brandon Crawford, and a couple others. Certainly no more than 10, which means the true hit likelihood was more in the 80 to 90 percent range.
I’m pretty sure Russell was quite aware of all this. He knew how only his trained mastery of so many nuanced fundamentals made the play possible.
This is what accounted for his huge smile after the play. And although he plays in a sport where the unfazed, taciturn scowl is the practiced norm, I doubt anyone begrudged any inch of that grin.