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Is Addison Russell Growing As a Player?

Each fantasy owner may have favorite players. One of my favorite players to watch is Addison Russell. I love watching Addison Russell hit and play defense. Yes, maybe it is the inner-child in me that longs to play middle infield and hit 25 doubles in the majors, or maybe it is because I drafted him when he was a minor league player with the Oakland A's.

In watching his first two years in MLB, am I only noting Russell's growth because of confirmation bias? Are we blind to our favorite players' weaknesses?

Where has he grown as a player? Where will he continue to grow? Where have his offensive skills plateaued? Which areas of his game are in danger of regressing in 2017? Are owners overpaying for him at pick #126 in NFBC leagues?

Points for Growth

Addison Russell made some strides at the plate last year. He hit lefties well (.801 OPS) in the second half of the season, which was up from his .562 OPS versus LHP during the first half. He also improved his contact rate and ISO in 2016. He posted a .147 ISO in 2015, which he raised to .179 last season. His on-base percentage (.321) hovered just above league average, even though he improved his walk-rate (9.2% bb%) slightly. Luckily for fantasy owners, he posted a lower strikeout-percentage (22.6% K%) in 2016, and he could continue to sharpen his eye for the strike zone as he matures. Russell also drove in 95 runs in 2016, which was up from 61 RBI in 2015.

Continuing to take more walks would help fantasy owners in OBP and points leagues, especially if he continues to combine more free passes with a lower strikeout percentage. Owners should monitor Russell's progress against left-handed pitching in 2017. Will he regress closer to .527 OPS versus LHP from 2015, or has he built on an adjustment that he made against LHP? A low career BABIP versus LHP is worth watching to also measure his adjustments versus lefties.

Will he have a chance at a higher batting average? Russell's .277 BABIP fell below his .299 career BABIP, and Steamer projects a higher batting average (from .239 to .247) this season. Even though he has only played two seasons, Russell has posted an .833 OPS at Wrigley Field, which drops to a .647 OPS on the road. Those in weekly leagues should continue to track the difference in OPS, but as his .232 road BABIP from last season inches closer to his career away BABIP (.275), he should raise his away OPS from last year’s numbers.

Russell improved his fly-ball percentage (from 35.1% to 43.3%) in the second-half last year, and his hard-contact (29.9 hard%) increased during the same time span, which could help his power numbers if he continues to drive the ball (21% LD%).

Points Against Growth in 2017

Not all of the statistics point to linear growth for Addison Russell. He was one of seven players in MLB that had more than 450 RBI chances in 2016. Russell converted 95 of his 461 chances (16.05%) last year, but how many chances will he see in 2017? Steamer projects 70 RBI, which could be about right depending on Joe Maddon's lineups. When he hit fifth in the lineup last year, Russell accumulated 34 RBI in 183 AB, and he drove in 29 runs in 181 AB when he hit seventh. Even though the Cubs finished with the third-highest OPS in the majors last year, Russell's RBI value is too dependent on team outcomes to project another 95 RBI.

Russell's OPS against RHP dropped slightly from .715 in the first half to .659 in the second half, which owners should continue to monitor if right-handed pitchers continue to stay low and away against Russell.

Will Russell continue to adjust to low and away pitches? He connects with low and away strikes 74% of the time, but he loses power when he attempts to take those pitches to the opposite field. Yes, he hit more fly balls (51.2% FB%) to the opposite field last year, but more of the balls ended up as infield fly-outs (34.9% IFFB%) instead of making it to the outfield. His soft contact percentage (40.7% soft%) jumped when trying to take pitches to the opposite field, while his hard contact (15.1% Hard%) dropped tremendously.

Soft contact percentage to the opposite field is not his only obstacle. Like a number of players, Russell hit 17 of his 21 homers when he pulled the ball. He did hit 8 of the 21 homers over 400 feet. Unfortunately, Russell's average fly-ball distance (287.98 feet) and below-average exit velocity (88.86 MPH) reveal that Russell may even give back some homers in 2017.

Even with his 21 homers, he posted the fifteenth-best offensive WAR (-2.4) in MLB last year, and the 15th-best wRC+ (95), which places him as a low-end starting SS in a standard 15-team mixed league. His fourth-best defensive WAR rating moves him up the rankings, which will not help the majority of fantasy owners.

The Findings

Based on the evidence, one could argue that Russell is ready to take the next step forward or regress from his 2016 numbers. While 2017 may not be a breakout year, taking more walks, lowering his strikeouts, and hitting more line drives would help his cause. The naysayer will cite his below-average exit velocity and regression in RBI chances.

Which side will fantasy owners choose? NFBC owners are drafting Addison Russell as the eighth-best SS at pick #126, but owners can draft Marcus Semien at pick #212. Steamer projects Semien to hit .249 with 22 HR, 75 RBI, 72 R, and 10 SB. Semien’s walks (8.2% BB%) and strikeout percentage (22.4% K%) were close to Russell’s numbers last year, and Semien posted a higher ISO (.197) in 2016.

As a fan of Addison Russell, I hope that he continues to mature and hit more "Addi Slams," but I will temper my expectations for 2017 until he makes adjustments to low and away pitches and improves his exit velocity.

Addison Russell Cubs Fantasy Baseball