Addison Russell Powers Up, Still Disappoints

I was bearish on Addison Russell heading into the 2016 season. It had far more to do with his likely placement in the Cubs’ batting order than his actual performance expectations. Because he recorded all his plate appearances from the bottom half of the order, he amassed just 598 of them, despite remaining healthy all season and missing nary a game due to injury. That hurt his counting stats, though aside from his mediocre runs scored total, were still fairly strong from a fantasy contribution perspective. They could have been better, of course. A spot in the bottom half of the lineup had something to do with his rank of just 16 in fantasy earnings among shortstops (17 if you include Jean Segura). So although his home run total jumped from 13 to 21 and ISO spiked from .147 to .179, he was still a disappointment to fantasy owners.

So about that power — we would figure that a young hitter like Russell, graded as possessing 60 raw power, would improve in his second full season. And he did, as his HR/FB rate surged from 9.8% to 14.2%, as he participated in the leaguewide rise in power output. Let’s check out the Statcast metrics to see if the power spike looks legit:

Addison Russell Statcast Metrics
Season Fly Ball Exit Velocity Brls/BBE
2015 86.7 6.0%
2016 88.8 10.4%

The exit velocity on his fly balls rose about two miles per hour, which isn’t dramatic, but at least it was meaningful. What was dramatic though was that jump in Brls/BBE, or Barrels per batted ball event. He went from ranking 205th out of 414 to 72nd out of 413. That’s a big move forward and helps validate the power increase. Russell didn’t show a ton of home run power in the minors, as he hit about 20 homers per 600 plate appearances during his minor league career. His power potential was seemingly driven more by scouting, so it’s a good sign seeing him making good on that potential already. He also hits fly balls at an above average clip, though that rate dropped a bit from his 2015 debut. A rebound there could push his home run total higher, assuming he could maintain his much improved strikeout rate.

Russell took a significant step forward with his strikeout rate, as he cut it from an inflated 28.5% mark in 2015 to an only marginally worse than league average mark of 22.6% this season. He only reduced his SwStk% slightly though, but swung a bit more often, which certainly helped. I consulted my hitter xK% metric to determine if this strikeout rate improvement seemed sustainable. In 2015, his xK% sat at 25.3%, suggesting he was quite a bit unlucky to post that 28.5% mark. In 2015, his xK% improved to 22.4%, almost perfectly matching his actual 22.6% mark. His improvement was fueled by an increase in Z-Swing% and Contact%. So, he swung and pitchers in the zone more frequently and made better overall contact on all pitches. His career minor league strikeout rate was 20.8%, so I would bet that his 2017 strikeout rate falls much closer to his improved 2016 mark than his inflated 2015 mark.

One major issue that took a bite out of his performance and fantasy value is the collapse of his BABIP, from .324 to .277. Given all his pop-ups, he never deserved that .324 mark to begin with, and he appeared on my biggest xBABIP overachiever list after 2015, with an xBABIP of just .280. This season, his xBABIP wasn’t much better at .295. He hit the ball harder and hit more line drives, but that was partially offset by even less willingness to go the opposite way. His current ball ball profile supports a league average BABIP, which is going to make it difficult for him to contribute positive value in batting average. Cutting down on his pop-up rate and a greater interest in spraying the ball to all fields would boost his BABIP, but we’ll have to see if he is able to make those adjustments.

At the moment, Roster Resource projects Russell to open the season batting fifth. But the Cubs have such a potentially strong lineup from top to bottom that we know this is fluid. And Joe Maddon loves to juggle his lineups, so it’s nowhere close to a given that Russell sticks in the spot all season. That would really be his only chance to repeat those 95 RBI, otherwise he’s going to suffer some regression there most likely. Since he doesn’t figure to post a strong OBP, he probably won’t find himself toward the top of the lineup. Because of this, I have a feeling that he may once again be overvalued in fantasy leagues as owners get excited by the youngster taking yet another step forward and fail to account for the downside of the potential of hitting seventh or eighth for an extended period of time.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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I think the Pop ups will stay there, because he is a guy who likes the ball inside and up in the Zone and he hits a lot of fly balls. Pop ups are just a byproduct of flyball hitting especially against pitches in the upper half of the Zone. that doesn’t make him unproductive, bautista Pops up a ton too.

I think he never will be a good BABIP guy (with his pull/FB tendency and him liking pitches up and in) and his contact improvement probably is Close to the max too (I could see him getting to 20% but not lower than that) but I think he could become a 30 HR guy if he fills out a Little more.

He probably could cut down his Pop ups but if that meant pulling less and hitting less producitve fly balls it might not be worth the trade off.