The Cubs' offense has been incredible this year. Among starters, the OPS+ for each starter, in descending order:
115 (Jason Heyward!)
The astute reader will note that there are two less-than-average bats in that lineup. The first is Anthony Rizzo, who has dealt with back issues this year and is, well, Anthony Rizzo.
The second is Addison Russell.
It's time to grapple with the fact that Addison Russell has literally never been a league average hitter in his career. His highest wOBA is .316. This year, it's .276 (a truly putrid mark). There's an acceptable level of production that a glove-first shortstop can have and still be very valuable – for instance, that 2016 mark of .316 led to a 3.3 fWAR season on the strength of a great defensive year. The current .217/.316/.290 slash line (good for a 76 wRC+) isn't cutting it.
That said, the cupboard isn't bare yet. Russell has been extraordinarily patient this year, with tons of walks and fewer strikeouts than ever. In fact, there’s a pretty compelling case that Russell has just been hit-unlucky. His LD% is unchanged and is spray chart is really funky for this season (normally Addy’s pull rate is around 40%, and this year it is 22%. All of that is now centered up). That is absolutely, 100%, not sustainable. Huge, abrupt changes in spray profile on this magnitude don’t happen. He also abruptly gained 15% of soft contact. Something is amiss here. His Statcast exit velo last year was 88.1 MPH and this year (so far) it is 86.8 MPH. It’s a slight change, but it is the difference between a slightly above average velo and a below average one.
When push comes to shove, it’s a sample size of just 20 games. It’s a fool’s errand to assign to much value to the last 20 games in a 423-game bucket. That said, it is Year 4 of the Addison Russell Experience, and Year 3 was worse than Year 2 and Year 4 looks worse yet. At the same time, Javy Baez has been crushing the ball and is more than capable than handling shortstop. Ian Happ, for all of his struggles offensively this seaosn, has still never been worse than Russell in any year of his (short) career and can play second base (albeit badly). It might be reasonable to shift Baez to SS full-time, and to have Russell get the majority of starts at 2B with Happ mixing in there and CF. The other option is to have Russell play SS when he starts, and have Baez move to SS and Happ go to 2B when he spells Russell (and all of this is predicated on Happ still being playable at second base – he did start there several times just last year).
In the end, the rational course of action is probably just to maintain the status quo. After 5 games this season, I literally proclaimed Addison Russell the best hitter on the team. Mike Trout may lead the country in fWAR (a traditional sign that sample sizes have been reached), but it is still incredibly early. Perhaps the point of this article is optimistic in that there are options if Addison continues to struggle (and I didn’t even mention Ben Zobrist).
Now, if only we could get a pitcher to get through 6 innings without walking 4 or 5 folks.