Welcome to this edition of the Cubs’ positional year in review series. Last Thursday, we discussed the second basemen, a positional that is currently a tangled web of potential scenarios. The shortstop position faces its own uncertainties in Chicago, many of which hinge on whether Addison Russell will be the starter there next year. I expanded on that question here. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume Russell will be the starter going forward.
It’s important to remember that Addison Russell is still only 23 years old. Though he’s been in the major leagues for nearly three full seasons already, he’s likely nowhere close to the production level that he’ll reach when he’s in his prime. It’s important to remember that caveat when discussing Russell’s performance at the plate, because, in a vacuum, 2017 did not go well for the former first-round draft pick.
After nearly reaching league-average production in 2016 and clubbing 21 home runs, a breakout seemed in the offing for Russell this season. Instead, his strikeouts ticked up, he walked less, and he ended the season with a wRC+ of just 84, 16 percent below league average. To make matters worse, he only played in 110 games thanks to a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
And yet, when you look under the hood, some positives emerge from Russell’s season. Although he struck out more, his swinging strike rate actually dropped slightly, and his contact rate ticked up. This suggests that the strikeout rate will fall once again next season.
Even better, when he did make contact the shortstop was hitting the ball with more authority. His hard-contact rate has increased from 27.1 percent as a rookie, to 29.3 percent in 2016, and 32.2 percent this season. Meanwhile, his line drive rate has also increased incrementally, and his pop-up rate fell by a whopping 9 percent in 2017. Simply put, Russell wasn’t making easy outs nearly as often as he did in his first two seasons. Instead, he was doing more of this:
Russell’s peripheral stats taken together suggest a player improving and refining his approach each season. It’s important to remember that progress as a young player is not linear, and the foot issues further complicated this season for Russell. While it’s not clear when–or if–a breakout will ever come for him; it’s possible he ends up as nothing more than an average hitter with one of the best gloves in the league at short. Still, that is the profile of a borderline star player. If Russell ever does have that breakout at the plate, he could become one of the most valuable players in the National League. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll still hit some homers and do plenty of this:
Javier Baez is really the only other option at short on most days for the Cubs, with Ben Zobrist the emergency replacement. As good as Russell has been defensively (8.6 runs saved above average in 2017 in just 110 games, per Fangraphs’ DEF metric), it’s wild that we even have to discuss whether someone else would be better. That’s a testament to how good Baez was defensively when he played short in Russell’s place. He was certainly a better hitter than Russell in 2017 as well, and if he continues to be better, he should be the one playing every day. With his more refined approach, Russell still likely has the higher ceiling as a hitter though. It will be interesting to see how much time the Cubs give him to figure it out at the plate.
Russell will be a Cub for a long time if the front office wants him there. He enters arbitration for the first time this winter, and will likely get a hefty pay raise from the $644,000 he made in 2017. He won’t hit free agency until after the 2021 season though, so the Cubs have plenty of time to make a decision on whether he’s the shortstop of the future. He’s certainly the shortstop of the present and I’d guess he remains there in 2018. He’s too young and there were too many encouraging signs this season to move him off his natural position. If he opens the season with a .703 OPS in April as he did in 2017, however, the calls for Baez to permanently move to short will only get louder.