Addison Russell‘s debut season has truly been an up-and-down affair. As I wrote earlier this month at BP Wrigleyville, he’s had pockets of success and times of deep struggles. It’s typical to see this type of roller-coaster act from rookies as they adjust to big-league pitchers. It was hardly a concern, especially for a top-tier talent like Russell, but that didn’t stop him from making some changes to his mechanics.
“I just felt like I was getting tied up inside a little bit,” Russell said when asked about his different look at the plate. “I felt like I wasn’t seeing the ball well, but ever since I switched to the leg kick—which was right after the All-Star Break—it’s working out tremendous. It quickly felt right. I was talking to (hitting coach) John Mallee and he said, ‘That’s you.'”
Russell is slashing .308/.364/.425 in the 12 games since the break. It’s not the type of hot stretch that many would take notice of, but it’s not just the results that have Russell optimistic that the change is the right move.
“I started switching it up a little bit, I’m seeing the ball fantastic, I’m barreling the ball up,” Russell told me. “The thing is, I’m just missing them, I’m catching everything out in front, but it’s definitely a step forward. I’m tapping into a little bit more power with the leg kick and also it’s putting me in a better position to hit. I’m not getting my foot down early, I’m just doing what comes natural to me and it’s working.”
The difference in Russell’s mechanics can be seen from the get-go, as shown below.
Looking at the whole swing, the differences become even starker than what we see in the images above. Russell has closed his stance, eliminating a toe tap in the process while implementing a leg kick.
So what was Russell’s reasoning for the change? As he explains, the leg kick works in tandem with his hands as a sort of cue for his load.
“I just want to get the feel of after I get my leg up whenever I put my leg down, I want to feel that extension,” Russell said. “It’s basically like a rubber band, as I put my leg down I want to get my hands back. And whenever my foot hits the ground, my eyes are going to tell me to swing. So it’s back, then go forward.
“Whenever I put my hands down there after I’m starting to move forward with my bottom half, I want to feel that pull back whenever I’m supposed to load,” Russell continued. “I’m just trying to get the separation. Sometimes on the off-speed pitches my foot may be down, but my hands are gonna be back. So it helps me being able to stay back and in an athletic position to be able to react to an off-speed pitch.”
Back in June, Russell, was open and using a toe tap.
After the All-Star break, Russell had implemented his changes; gone was the toe tap, he closed his stance, and he was now using a pronounced leg kick.
“I’m not looking to tap into my power, that’s just what’s happening,” said Russell, who has been pulling the ball with authority a bit more of late. “Before, when I would get the foot down early, I really wouldn’t have any separation between my hands and then I would basically just swing from a standstill. It’s basically what I was doing. As I got to the big leagues, I noticed that I wasn’t hitting the fastball, I was getting beat. Especially fastballs just right down the plate, I felt like I wasn’t getting any extension so I just switched to a leg kick and I see it a lot better, I react better, and it’s just been better.”
The Cubs’ offense has been struggling of late, pretty much since the latter part of May, but Russell turning things around could really spark them. He’s usually batting ninth in the order, and leadoff man Dexter Fowler has also been looking strong since the break, with a .533 OBP in his last 13 games. Add that to hot-hitting rookie Kyle Schwarber often batting second, and the Cubs’ big hitters—Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Jorge Soler—should be primed to knock them in and finally start putting some runs on the board.
But alas, it seems as though multiple players can’t manage to click at the same time for the Cubs, leading to few runners crossing the plate and overzealous Cubs fans looking for someone to blame. Rather than chalking things up to the natural non-linear development path one should expect from youth—and a bizarrely poor first half from Fowler—some have inexplicably—and without much concrete evidence—decided to point the finger at Mallee, placing the blame for the Cubs’ offensive woes at his feet. (They’re also probably unaware that Fowler had one of his best offensive seasons under Mallee’s watch last year in Houston.) But if you ask Russell, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I believe in him, I trust in him, he’s been completely honest with me, and we’re figuring it out,” Russell said. “I like what he has to say, he’s a great coach. Basically I’ve always wanted to do a leg kick and ever since spring training he’s thought a leg kick would benefit me, but he kept quiet until I said something. Ever since then he’s asked if I want to toy around with it and when it comes to game time, just go with what feels natural. The day we played Atlanta I was in the cage practicing and it felt good. I wouldn’t say I grasped the whole concept, but it felt natural and I took it into the next game and the rest is history. Now I’m doing the leg kick and I feel a lot better at the plate.”
Once Russell brought the idea to Mallee, the veteran hitting coach embraced the idea. The two worked together in the cage, hitting balls off the tee while doing various leg-kick drills.
“Doing whatever felt natural to me is basically what Mallee wanted me to do,” Russell said. “And I feel when I have my hands low I feel like I get the separation, I’m squatting down, have a shorter width, and I feel pretty athletic there. I’m seeing the ball really well.”
Russell came into the season ranked as one of the best prospects in all of baseball. There was never any question that he was a kid with special talent, but that didn’t keep him from experiencing deep struggles at the plate a few months into his big-league arrival. Of course, those struggles didn’t spell doom for the future. As any player, former or current, will tell you, baseball is a game of adjustments. This rings especially true for young players, who will either learn to adjust to the highest level of talent they’ll ever face or quickly find themselves without a role.
Russell not only sought out a coach to discuss an adjustment he thought might work, but he worked hard with that coach to implement those adjustments, quickly worked it into gameplay, and has been steadily improving ever since. That’s not just a good sign for Russell and the Cubs in 2015, but it could lead to the young infielder tapping into his elite talent, ensuring he reaches his high ceiling.
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