Is Addison Russell the Cubs' Most Valuable Player?
Addison Russell doesn’t get enough credit, and it makes perfect sense.
He’s playing at a time when phenoms Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor are all the rage as young superstar shortstops who can pick it and swing it. As a part of the best team in baseball -- surrounded by flashy headliners Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Kris Bryant -- Russell even struggles for attention on his own squad. Furthermore, Russell’s calling card, his slick defense, doesn’t matter in fantasy circles, further contributing to his underrated-ness.
But Russell deserves a seat at the table with those other young shortstops, and he’s a vital cog in Joe Maddon’s unyielding machine of dominance. In the midst of just his age-22 season, Russell already has one (nearly) three-win campaign under his belt, per FanGraphs, and he’s showing extremely promising signs of improvement early in 2016.
Better With The Bat
This is what a breakout looks like.
Now, it's not on the level of Manny Machado's ridiculous breakout in 2015, but Russell is making huge strides. In just his second season, Russell has improved his walk rate and strikeout rate, something which can take players several years to do (see: Salvador Perez). Of course, we’re dealing with a small sample size, but walk rate and strikeout rate tend to stabilize in a relatively low number of plate appearances.
On its face, a player with a .318 wOBA is nothing to call home about -- although it does rank 11th among all shortstops -- but when you combine the .318 wOBA with elite defense at a crucial position, it’s acceptable to dial up your mother.
Love The Glove
Simply put: Anything the Cubs get from Russell’s bat is gravy, because he’s one of the game’s best defensive shortstops.
Take your pick of any defensive metric. Among shortstops, Russell is tied for fifth in UZR, fifth in UZR/150 and sixth in Defensive Runs Saved. Defensive metrics can be a bit wonky from year to year, but Russell ranked fifth among shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved in 2015 despite playing just 471 1/3 innings. The four players above him all logged at least 865 innings.
If you’re more of an eye-test guy, there’s also this:
The Cubs MVP?
Chicago is an astonishing 61-23 since August 7th of last season, which is the date Russell became the team’s everyday shortstop.
|2015 Record prior to August 7||60-48|
|2015 Record after August 7||37-17|
In the same way pitchers shouldn’t get too much credit or blame for their team’s win or loss, the same can certainly be said for shortstops. So here’s some more telling evidence.
Per ESPN’s Jayson Stark, prior to August 7th, the Cubs turned 52.8 percent of all ground balls into outs, which ranked 11th in baseball. Once Russell became the starter, Chicago converted 55.5 percent of grounders into outs -- up to the fourth-best clip in the game -- through the remainder of the 2015 season. This year, the Cubs are first in the league in turning battled balls into outs, per Baseball Prospectus.
Errors are a flawed statistic for evaluating defense, but the Cubs' pitchers have to be drawing little hearts around Russell's name. The dude checks off every box of defensive greatness.
Addison Russell's errors by the month pic.twitter.com/OcAiODg4m5
— Cliff Lippert (@CliffyIndiana) May 9, 2016
In addition to the field work, Russell has been the Cubs' best hitter in "clutch" situations. He owns a slash line of .444/.500/.889 when the game is categorized as late and close, according to ESPN's Jesse Rogers.
Defensive metrics have helped us gain an appreciation for the greatness of defensive wizards. Kevin Kiermaier and Andrelton Simmons are somewhat household names, at least in baseball circles, and neither of them packs any sort of a punch with the lumber.
Russell is still a part of the glove-first fraternity, but if he can continue making strides at the plate, he’ll become one of the game’s most valuable all-around players and make the Cubs even better -- which is terrifying.