Russell Projects to Be Worth Nearly One More Win Than Baez in 2018

Though they make up one of the most talented middle infield duos in MLB, Javy Baez and Addison Russell are often compared to one another in a polarizing manner. The idea that the two should flip-flop positions is a frequently debated topic. And whether the Cubs should trade one instead of the other has been discussed time and time again.

Baez (the explosive bat and flashy glove) and Russell (the instinctive feel and smooth, gliding play) each have their individual weaknesses and strengths. But who is more likely to be better in 2018?

According to Steamer projections, which has rated as the most accurate offensive forecaster in years past, believes Russell will outperform his double-play partner in 2018 even with fewer plate appearances.

Steamer likes Russell more because he has shown better plate discipline so far in his young career compared to Javy’s overly aggressive nature. While Baez projects to smash five more homers and bat 10 points higher, Russell still projects to have a slightly better wRC+ (two percentage points) because of a better OBP driven by walks.

And then there’s Russell’s defense, which projects to be three times more valuable than Baez’s ~3 Fld score. We’ve discussed the limitations of defensive metrics here at Cubs Insider before, particularly noting how it takes roughly three seasons for stats like UZR to stabilize. But in Russell’s case, since he’s played three seasons of top-tier defense at shortstop, Steamer is confident that he can continue his stellar defensive value.

All in all, Russell’s WAR (2.8) projects to be almost fifty percent better than what Baez (2.0) figures to put up.

Russell 482 18 0.252 0.325 0.444 0.769 0.325 97 0.4 8.3 2.8
Baez 536 23 0.262 0.314 0.462 0.776 0.322 95 1.1 2.8 2.0

This isn’t an indictment of Javy’s future value, it’s just that Russell’s more controlled game better lends itself to projection models. Because Javy struggled mightily when he first debuted and continues to whiff at a high rate, computers will penalize him until he plays longer and matures in his approach. It’s certainly still within the realm of possibility Javy does adjust to the extent that he becomes more valuable than Russell.

Except that Russell also has his high ceiling. Not only has he already proven to be of the most valuable shortstops through age 23 in recent MLB history, but he hasn’t hit the offensive ceiling executives projected for him as a rookie. Though A’s president Billy Beane told Theo Epstein he’d just gotten Barry Larkin when Russell was acquired, that hasn’t been a reality.

Since Russell debuted in 2015, however, he’s exhibited a mechanical evolution at the plate that has led to improvements in power and contact rate. Still, these adjustments have failed to yield consistent offensive success. And injuries have plagued the infielder so far in his young career, leading many to question — justifiably so — whether the Cubs can rely on their everyday shortstop going forward.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that computers fail to account for the natural human nature of baseball players. Sometimes, something clicks for a player and his potential is fully realized. We could go on about these two infielders’ respective ceilings over time, but Steamer’s 2018 projections show that Russell should outproduce Baez by 0.8 WAR in 54 fewer plate appearances.

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