Here Is a Powered-Up Addison Russell

My hunch is that it’s easier for pitchers to make adjustments on the fly than hitters. In part this is because pitchers are simply more in control — they can aim for different areas, while hitters simply have to respond. Pitchers also get more and longer breaks between appearances, and sometimes a pitch can just click. Everybody everywhere is always tweaking something, and I’m no authority, but I’d guess that hitters make their biggest changes over offseasons. That’s when they have the best opportunity to identify a flaw and get to overwriting the old muscle memory.

Yet you do see midseason adjustments. Some players are just better at adjusting than others. Some players are more aware of themselves than others. Some adjustments stick, and some adjustments fade away. Muscle memory is a fickle thing. I can tell you that Addison Russell has changed on the fly. For a while, it seemed like he’d need to either improve his contact or improve his power. His power now is trending up. He is 22 years old.

This is easy enough to demonstrate with familiar statistics. Last season was one in which Russell made various tweaks to his swing. He’s made more tweaks in 2016, and to go with a blunt tool, here’s a table that splits his season between June and July:

Addison Russell In 2016
Split PA wRC+ GB% Oppo% Hard% Swing%
Through June 291 92 45% 27% 28% 47%
Since July 205 109 35% 15% 34% 55%

Each sample, individually, is fairly small, but we still have some hundreds of plate appearances. In neither sample has Russell been horribly bad or outstandingly good. He’s been better lately, though, and the difference has been his power. Swing-wise, Russell has become more aggressive. He’s hit more balls hard, and he’s hit fewer balls to the opposite field, while supplying his batted balls with more lift. Russell, in other words, has been turning on his pull power. That’s the easiest kind of power, and here are some spray charts, from Baseball Savant:

russell-spray

It’s nothing dramatic — Russell didn’t go from DJ LeMahieu to Brian Dozier. But there is a real pattern in there, and what’s probably most interesting is how Russell has flipped around his hot and cold zones. Early-season Russell had a clear vulnerability. He’s been able to address it. Let’s look first at Russell’s contact rates:

russell-contact

Earlier, Russell had a big problem catching up to high pitches — primarily fastballs. Good high heat could blow him away, but then when you look to the right side, you see that Russell’s contact has essentially risen. He’s made less contact low, and he’s made more contact high. The high contact has also become better contact. Here’s a plot of slugging percentages:

russell-slg

Again, Russell has improved in the upper half. He’s better prepared for high pitches, and he’s doing more damage to high pitches. And it hasn’t been simply a mental adjustment. Here is an early-season swing, attempted against Fernando Rodney:

And now here’s a swing from Sunday:

This can actually be broken down with stills. A picture of Russell from May:

russell-5-7

A picture of Russell from June:

russell-6-19

A picture of Russell from July:

russell-7-22

And a picture of Russell from Sunday, in August:

russell-8-28

The thing to look at is the position of Russell’s hands. I wouldn’t focus too much on the one toe-tap — that probably had to do with the two-strike count. Earlier, Russell had his hands low, below chin level. Over the last few months, Russell has raised his hands up, more behind eye level. It’s looked also like Russell might’ve slightly shortened his stride, but that’s speculative. The hands are obvious — the pictures are right there — and the change has corresponded with a change in Russell’s batting profile. He can get to those pitches up, now, and he can lift them. The grounders are now coming on pitches low and away.

It’s funny — sometimes players adjust back to doing things like how they used to. When Russell first showed up in the majors, he had his hands high. He lowered them over the course of last season, but he also folded in a more closed stance, and the leg kick. The more closed stance is still there. The leg kick is still there. But the hands have moved back up, as Russell continues to search for the optimal compromise. I’m going to guess that keeping the hands high helps to remove a hitch; it should give Russell a shorter path to pitches around the belt. The numbers bear that out, as Russell has become more productive over the course of the year against fastballs. He has a new target area, and for a couple months now, it’s been working for him.

You never quite know which tweak will be the big one. You never know which one will cause a lasting change in profile. This one has been promising to date — Russell hasn’t stopped striking out, but homers are homers. He’s doing what he needed to do, cleaning up a troublesome area over the plate. Now the challenge is going to be how Russell responds to those softer pitches down. Over the past few weeks, pitchers have thrown Russell fewer fastballs, as they realize that he’s hunting them. And this is what it’s going to come down to. If Russell has simply changed from one vulnerability to another, then more adjustments will inevitably follow. It’s going to be a cat-and-mouse game between him and his opponents. But if Russell shows enough discipline, and if he can keep himself from chasing, then that’s it. That’s Addison Russell at a new level as a hitter. The biggest weakness he had, he patched. So begins the search for another.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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dtpollitt
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dtpollitt

The fact that we have 3 shortstops, all aged 22 years, who are elite defensively and offensively (Seager, Lindor, Russell) and going to finish with >5 fWAR is nuts. Almost nothing is more pleasing than watching a good shortstop smother balls on the field and crush them at the plate.

amartin
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amartin

Welllll Russell is hardly elite offensively, even though the article is about his offense. His WRC+ is sitting at 99 right now.

But what I wanted to bring up was if you extend the age to 24 (still young!) you also see Xander, Machado (now that he’s been playing SS) and Story (if you believe his season until he got hurt).If SS are your thing there’s not much reason to make 22 the arbitrary cut off, especially when you’re missing out on guys like Xander and Machado especially.

Emcee Peepants
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Emcee Peepants

But Bogarts misses the “elite defensively” bar, with a -14 DRS and -5.3 UZR/150, Story is only marginally better with a 4 DRS and -7.0 UZR/150, and Machado hasn’t played SS since June 17th. Correa for me has the next best elite O/D combo, but his D is only slightly better than Xander’s.

Russell’s wRC+ is 111 in the second half (roughly post adjustment from this article) which is good for 5th among guys who actually play SS (i.e. excluding Brad Miller and Machado from the leaderboard). His 8 second half HRs also lead all actual SS’s in the second half. I’m not sure this makes him elite yet either, but he’s knocking on the door.

sheeks9
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sheeks9

And while they may not be as good defensively, you simply cannot forget about Correa and Bogaerts. Plus, Story and Diaz were on their way to big numbers at the plate in their rookie seasons.

In addition to that, we still get to watch a handful of quality Shortstops who are coming through the upper minors: Swanson, Crawford, Arcia, and Bregman (although Bregman may not stick there without a trade).

Great time to be a fan of the middle infield.

Da Bum
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Da Bum

While I agree with the main point, Bregman has been up long enough to pass rookie limits and Swanson came up a week ago.