Why Addison Russell Is a Good Fantasy Baseball Investment
He really shouldn't have been there for as long as he was.
When Addison Russell was called up by the Chicago Cubs to be their everyday shortstop on April 21 of last year, he did so as a 21-year-old who had played just 11 games and gotten 46 plate appearances at the Triple-A level. Yes, he was one of the brightest prospects in all of baseball, but his arrival was a bit early to say the least.
Most expected he would be called up in September, maybe August, after the All-Star Game at the very earliest. Yet he accumulated 523 plate appearances for the Cubs last year, putting up an fWAR of 2.9 in the process.
However, much of that was due to his outstanding defense, which was Major League ready. The bat, however, never really caught up.
Above are his numbers last year compared to his most recent minor league seasons. As you can see, he raked in Double-A in 2014 for the A's and Cubs and was off to a hot start in Triple-A last season before he was called up.
So what happened? In the minors, Russell showed a terrific bat for a shortstop with more power than most. And, even in a not-so-great offensive season last year, his 13 homers were tied for eighth-most among MLB shortstops.
But as you can see, his strikeout rate exploded last year, although it coincided with an increased walk rate. In discussing this phenomena, Fangraphs' Mike Podhorzer noted the two were somewhat related, and that his swinging strike percentage of 13.7% was very high, especially without corresponding power numbers.
In fact, that 13.7% swinging strike percentage was highest among qualified MLB shortstops and was tied for 13th-highest among all MLB hitters. And just about everyone ahead of him on that list is a power hitter.
However, there were some mitigating factors to his disappointing offensive output.
First, he was 21 years old. Most 21-year-olds are in Single-A or Double-A ball, and Russell really should have spent the season in Triple-A. He was rushed to the Majors.
Second, manager Joe Maddon is one of those managers who likes hitting the pitcher eighth in the lineup and, for most of the season, Russell batted in the nine-hole. That limited RBI opportunities and plate appearances.
Granted these are small sample sizes, but take a look at how much better Russell was when hitting higher in the lineup.
Again, this isn't a lot of data to go on, but it does suggest that Russell performed better when not batting at the bottom of the lineup.
Much of his value in 2016 will be determined on his spot in the batting order. With Dexter Fowler not returning, it's possible we'll see Russell hitting in the leadoff spot this season. That would be great news for fantasy purposes, likely leading to more run-scoring possibilities and stolen bases. And, given the depth of the Cubs' lineup, he should see plenty of good pitches to hit.
And the walk rate is encouraging, even if it was accompanied by an high strikeout rate. If he can work on minimizing his swinging strikes while maintaining last year's walk rate, he could be a very valuable leadoff hitter.
Steamer is projecting Russell to his .247/.307/.394 with 14 homers, 56 runs scored and 59 RBI, with a .306 wOBA, a wRC+ of 91 and an fWAR of 2.5. Most of those numbers project to be worse than last year.
But those projections are mostly based off of last season and not his minor league statistics. They also likely project what he would do hitting at the bottom of the lineup.
Fantasy players interested in Russell should pay attention to what happens in spring training with the Cubs because where Maddon ends up putting Russell will likely make the difference between Russell being a quality fantasy shortstop and someone who drags down your team.
The talent is there. With a better spot in the order and a year of experience under his belt, Russell would be a good investment in year-long fantasy in 2016.