2012 Player Profile: James Russell
James Russell stepped up in the late innings and proved he can pitch to more than just lefties. (Photo by Stephen Green)
2012 Innings Pitched: 69.1 (77 G, 0 GS)
2012 Pitching (all per 9 IP): 3.63 RA, 8.7 H, 3.0 BB, 0.6 HR, 7.1 K
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 0.7
2013 Contract Status: Signed (Arb eligible, First Year)
Repertoire (Avg. MPH): Four-seam (90), Two-seam (89), Cutter (87), Slider (82), Change (82), Curve (74)
After two consecutive successful years in the Cubs bullpen, James Russell has proven he’s no one-trick pony. But for a failed, emergency trial in the starting rotation last season, Russell has settled into one of the bullpen’s most vital roles: A late-inning lefty who can get both lefties and righties out.
Russell’s role was elevated in 2012 largely because of the Cubs bullpen makeover. Sean Marshall was traded to the Reds as he approached free agency, Kerry Wood retired in May, and it took half the season for Carlos Marmol to recover the closer role fully. As you’ll see in the November issue of Vine Line, Russell and Shawn Camp were basically the No. 2 relievers this season (based on average Leverage Index), with Russell getting a greater share of the team’s critical innings as the season went along. He became a more substantial bridge to Marmol as well. In 2011, Russell faced just one batter in 20 percent of his appearances; in 2012, he did that in just seven of 77 games.
Against left-handers, Russell becomes more or less a two-pitch lefty, primarily relying on his low three-quarters arm angle to sweep sliders away. He also pitches backward. He threw a breaking ball 76 percent of the time on first pitches and went with 39 percent fastballs when ahead in the count. The first-pitch slider seems to work because it resulted in a ball only 24 percent of the time—and in a 0-1 count on 62 percent of first pitches.
On the other hand, you can see Russell’s roots as a starter in how he attacks righties. The overall mix of hard and soft stuff (blue and green, respectively) is about half and half, and his cutter, two-seamer and change-up all play a more significant role. Using his full repertoire gives him a continuum of speeds and movement.
Against both lefties and righties, Russell pitches almost exclusively away—and he does this more than the typical left-hander. His splits this year were virtually equivalent. He allowed a .262/.309/.417 slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) against lefties and a .250/.317/.419 line against righties. The average platoon advantage for 2012 NL lefty pitchers versus lefty hitters was 39 points of average, 39 points of on-base percentage and 87 points of slugging percentage.
Russell’s strikeout percentage was about 19 percent against both. He did walk 9.4 percent of righties faced, as compared to 5.4 percent of lefties. But let’s control for things a bit better than that. Manager Dale Sveum asked his reliever to intentionally walk a right-handed hitter seven times this year. Remove those plate appearances, and Russell’s walk rate against righties dips to 5.7 percent. His overall walks also dips from a borderline-high 3.0 per nine innings to a quite-good 1.7 per nine.
Is the Cubs’ lack of a platoon split sustainable? Not necessarily—Russell had a more typical advantage against lefties in 2011, and we’re just too early in his career to know which is real. But the versatility of his repertoire is convincing. He can leverage his arm angle against same-sided hitters, while keeping righties guessing. But it’s his ability to command the ball that makes him so effective.
Russell has three full years of service time, so he enters his first year of arbitration in 2013 and will get a modest raise. The Cubs have him under team control through at least 2015.