At Shortstop: Addison Russell

It’s too bad it won’t be Roy Steele’s voice ringing this post’s title from on high — wherever the Athletics are playing — but the declaration itself does seem like more of a lock to happen eventually. Nineteen-year-old Addison Russell has had some doubters in the past. After playing his way to an all-star berth in the Arizona Fall League, the bat has successfully made fans at every stop.

The most interesting aspect of his play might be on the other side of the ball, though, where some feel his body type may move him off the position. After talking to the young man about his craft, though, and assessing his skillset and the values of his major league team, it seemed obvious to me that he’ll be a shortstop when he’s announced into the lineup for the first time in the big leagues.

Just by being selected to the Rising Stars game, and being so young, Addison Russell has pushed his expected success rate so that it’s now equal to a top-thirty hitting prospect in Baseball America’s yearly ranks. He’ll probably make the top twenty or ten in the next version of the list by most accounts, anyway. If there are remaining questions about his game, they’re about his ability to make contact and stay at shortstop.

When I asked him about the relationship of patience and aggressiveness, Russell admitted that sometimes he finds himself “working through deep counts,” despite being pretty aggressive. And though his uncomplicated swing produces enough two-strike hits, “the pitchers have their pitch, a pitcher’s pitch, and there’s not really much” he can do about it. Watching him, you could see that some of his strikeouts came from this selectivity, and that he’s not necessarily lacking in the ability to control his bat. And there’s good news in that minor league strikeout rates aren’t as predictive of major league success rates as other peripherals.

In Arizona, he was getting a sneak preview of the way the high-minors pitchers would attack him. Though his approach was to “stay ready through the whole count,” he found pitchers in the AFL to be more accurate. Their ability to command all of their pitches — an aspect of competition that other young prospects in Arizona mentioned — made for a tough early going for Russell. He also thought he was seeing more splitfingers.

But, after a few weeks with a low batting average on balls in play — “I’ve barreled balls up and they’ve just been right to someone” — Russell started finding his way. He knew that he couldn’t ask for much more than seeing the pitch well and hitting it well, and his statistics began to rise as the games went on. Maybe he even started to recognize the splitter earlier (“It’s like a changeup, but you can see the laces a lot more”). His final line (.282/.361/.435 with a .329 BABIP) may not seem impressive compared to past Arizona Fall Leagues, but this year’s version had a bit more pitching. The average batting line was close to .254/.338/.381 this year.

Russell gets a lot more leeway with the bat if he sticks at short. And critics point to his stocky lower half and powerful frame and think he’ll move off the position. But if that comes to fruition, it shouldn’t be for a while. Russell has the smarts to make the most of his athleticism at the position.

I asked him what he can do to get better at defense other than reps at the position, and he had an impressive list: “Make sure you’re reading your hops well. Try not to rush things. Just stay on your own timing mechanism. Know who’s running at the plate, when to spit it out, and when to take your time and make a firm throw. Just trying to get reads off the bat.”

His awareness alone should help him stick, but there is a chance that today’s more metric-based environment helps him. Look at Jhonny Peralta on the field, for example, and you might not think you’re looking at an above-average shortstop defensively. By taking care of his positioning, thanks to some good work by his coaching staff, Peralta has made it work despite questionable quickness and first step. Change some of the language in those two sentences and you could be talking about Oakland’s current shortstop’s defensive value. Since Russell seems to be actively thinking about his positioning, it follows that he can be a modern shortstop. At the very least, in Oakland.

Russell also tries to help shepherd the infield crew. Not only does he get prepared based on what pitch is coming, or where the catcher is setting up, he also tries to keep his thirdbaseman in the loop: “If it’s an offspeed pitch and he’s a righty, I give him a little ‘ts ts’ to let him know.” Having heard this from third basemen while researching my piece for The Hardball Times Annual, I was ready for a followup this time: “Can’t the batter hear you?!” Russell laughed. He pointed out that there were all sorts of things happening on the field that you couldn’t hear in the crowd. And that the hitter is focused on other things.

It seems a lot to think about, at the plate and in the field. For one, Russell is ready because he’s thinking about his game. But once he’s on the field, he doesn’t see it as thinking. “Whenever you’re in the zone, you’re really not thinking about it, it just comes naturally,” he said of defensive positioning. Sounds like the kind of approach that should make the most of this sturdy young player’s physical attributes. In the big leagues. At shortstop.

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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10 years ago

Steel hasn’t been the Stadium announcer for awhile now.