Addison Russell and the Perils of Improvement

Getting better at something can open you up to new risks. Or maybe it’s more correct to say that getting better at something can make you realize that you have to get even better at it. Addison Russell has worked hard to become a decent breaking-ball hitter. He’s made strides. Pitchers have responded, though — and used his confidence against him. So he’ll have to take another step forward to keep pace.

Checking in with Russell at camp, I asked him about a slight tendency to swing at more breaking balls in the latter part of the 2016 season. Russell didn’t say much about it, but what he did say is worth unpacking. “Just the way they were trying to pitch me,” he shrugged. “They know I’m a breaking-ball hitter, and I’m going to swing if they throw it in the zone.”

Russell has always felt confident facing sliders. He slugged .333 against the pitch when he put it in play as a rookie, which was below league average (.360) but also pretty good for a 21-year-old shortstop in his first exposure to the majors. Then, early in 2016, by both (a) laying off the low-and-outside slider and then (b) making powerful contact on the sliders at which he did swing, he became one of the best slider hitters in the league.

Best Slider Hitters, Early 2016
Batter Sliders Seen AVG OBP SLG
Jackie Bradley Jr. 166 0.415 0.467 0.927
Adam Jones 154 0.409 0.447 0.705
Corey Seager 215 0.302 0.339 0.698
Jonathan Lucroy 177 0.360 0.396 0.640
Jay Bruce 165 0.314 0.359 0.629
Kris Bryant 246 0.359 0.404 0.623
Lorenzo Cain 203 0.395 0.435 0.605
Trevor Story 274 0.257 0.316 0.600
Mike Napoli 236 0.333 0.360 0.583
Michael Saunders 208 0.250 0.294 0.583
Justin Upton 195 0.361 0.395 0.583
Addison Russell 233 0.311 0.380 0.578
Byung-ho Park 170 0.227 0.292 0.568
Adam Duvall 201 0.200 0.196 0.564
Wil Myers 317 0.313 0.371 0.563
Minimum 150 sliders seen. n = 136

Of course, major-league baseball is a game of adjustments. As Russell told me, pitchers began to change their approach. They laid off the slider a bit, dropping their rate of sliders and cutters from 24.6% down to 21.2% in the second half. But they also used his aggressiveness and confidence on the pitch to their advantage — they started throwing the slider in the zone more often. Look at first-half slider locations (left) compared to the second half (right).

They threw the slider more often in the zone, and he grew confident, and so he swung at the slider more in the second half.

It’s interesting to see that, even though the pitchers were increasingly throwing the slider closer to the heart of the zone, Russell’s confidence led to swings at sliders outside the zone in the second half. Off the plate outside, up and in (though those seem to be either misclassified pitches, or hangers), low and in: he expanded the zone against all pitches in the second half (35.7% reach rate, up from 27.4% in the first half), but he expanded the zone especially against sliders.

Only six players experienced a bigger drop-off in their second-half slugging percentage on sliders than Russell did, declining from that attractive .578 slugging mark featured above to a .286 figure in the second half. This while seeing fewer sliders, swinging at more of them, and whiffing less often when he did swing.

It could certainly be the bounce of the ball in play that fueled all of this, but it’s interesting to see the heat maps support so well the idea that this was the product of a quick, visceral response from the player. That moment of honesty makes us wonder if it was hubris that led Russell to swing more, or if it was something more complicated.

This might have something to do with the way we manage risk. There’s a theory about the way we deal with risk called Risk Compensation (or Risk Homeostasis). From Wikipedia:

Risk compensation is a theory which suggests that people typically adjust their behavior in response to the perceived level of risk, becoming more careful where they sense greater risk and less careful if they feel more protected. Although usually small in comparison to the fundamental benefits of safety interventions, it may result in a lower net benefit than expected.

In Russell’s situation, the risk is striking out or producing a poor ball in play off the slider. As he got better at hitting sliders, though, he began to regard the risk of those outcomes as less probable, and then started to act less carefully about sliders. The result was, as you might say, a lower net benefit than he expected.

You could really call it hubris or risk compensation, and would either be completely wrong or right? What I do like about framing it in the context of risk compensation is the idea that there’s a feeling-out process between a player and the different perceived risks he sees coming from the pitcher.

And it’s that part that Russell echoed when I mentioned that he’s improved incrementally every time he’s repeated a level in his career. Strikeout rates, walk rates, power: each time he’s been given another shot at a league, he’s made incremental gains. “It’s a day-to-day process,” said Russell. “Whether it’s seeing an extra pitch, or doing my speed work… I’ll hit. I’ll hit. I just have to keep my legs under me for the long season.”

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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DD
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Didn’t Mark Trumbo effectively describe risk compensation when discussing why he doesn’t take more walks? I believe he stated that changing his approach may lead to more walks but would cause him to lose so much of his value elsewhere (hard hits/power) that he saw it as a negative net benefit. I would think this is a way for hitters to rationalize not making such changes, though in Russell’s case he has some real world results to point to here that he should be wary of adjusting as he did.