Addison Russell Might be MLB’s Best Defensive Shortstop
The highlights tell the story better than any words ever could. Watching him play defense is like seeing a copy of Leaves of Grass sprout legs and walk around, which is to say Addison Russell is poetry in motion.
With a first step so swift it could serve as Anthony Rizzo’s walk-up music, Russell is able to range to either side in order to knock down balls that would go for hits against mere mortals. But that’s only part of what makes him special. The lightning quickness with which he transitions from fielding to throwing the ball is baffling, the fluidity of his motions buttery enough to top the popcorn you should be noshing as you’re watching.
Even if Russell never develops further at the plate — which, for the record, I think he will — his glove is enough to make him a building block for the Cubs for years to come. Prior to moving to short a little less than two months ago, Russell established himself as one of the best defensive second basemen in the game. This despite playing only a handful of games there at AAA before being called up.
According to Fangraphs, Russell ranks 3rd among all second basemen in Def (overall ranking of defensive acumen), 2nd in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, the number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined), and 1st in RngR (number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity).
You’ll also notice that Russell logged significantly fewer innings than anyone on the list not named Danny Espinoza. That’s important to note since defensive metrics are largely cumulative, so bigger numbers are typically representative of a larger sample size. I should also note that these stats are not necessarily predictive and that it’s dangerous to make too many projections based on what we see in them. It’s equally silly to just dismiss them out of hand though.
So what does Russell being good on one side of the diamond have to do with him excelling on the other. Well, nothing. Or maybe everything. From the beginning, I had felt his performance while learning a new position was indicative of a player whose instincts and skill would truly be able to bloom at his more natural spot. Turns out I was right. That doesn’t happen often, so I like to state it when I can.
Being good at one spot on the field doesn’t mean you’re going to do well at another, but Russell seems to have improved since flipping positions with Starlin Castro. Some of that may just be my perception of him, as Russell’s flair for the dramatic has left me drooling on more than one occasion. But even at only 60% of his innings-played total at second, the young shortstop is already climbing the charts among his new peers.
Russell ranks in the top 10 in most of the major defensive categories and is actually 2nd in UZR/150, which adjusts for a player’s production over a 150-game period. But look at the chart above and tell me what jumps out at you in regard to Russell’s stats. Got it? He’s way up there despite having played nearly 400 fewer innings and getting at least 67 fewer chances than anyone else in the top 14.
Oh, seeing Starlin Castro on there is a thing too, I guess.
But saying that he’s played fewer innings at short is only part of the story. He’s done this after starting his major league career at a different position and while trying to figure out how to hit at the highest level at the same time. There’s no way to accurately factor in the psychological aspects of his rookie campaign, but I’d say there’s reason to believe this kid still has plenty of room to get better.
It’s not just Cubs fans who’ve taken notice of the rookie’s skills either. ESPN recently named Russell MLB’s Defensive Player of the Month for September, as writer Mark Simon detailed on Thursday:
Russell’s nine defensive runs saved ranked second in baseball, trailing only Jason Heyward’s 10. They were one more than defensive wizard and fellow shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
It hasn’t mattered where the Cubs put Russell this season, whether it be second base or shortstop. He’s performed remarkably well at both. Entering Thursday he ranked fourth in the majors in defensive runs savedfor the season at both second base and shortstop. He might not win a Gold Glove, but he will be a legitimate candidate for The Fielding Bible’s annual award for multi-positional excellence.
What Russell has done best, regardless of where he’s been put, is cover the ground in the middle of the diamond. Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive charting rates him as highly above average at fielding balls hit to the right of where the second baseman would traditionally play, and highly above average at fielding balls to the left of where the shortstop would traditionally play.
I can’t wait to see what Russell is able to do when given a full season to ply his trade at short for the Cubs. When you add in all that latent offensive potential, it’s not a stretch to say that this young man could be the best shortstop in baseball (BSIB?) in pretty short order. North Side bias? Sure, might as well call it like it is. But I think we’ve yet to see the best of Addison Russell and that is a pretty happy thought.