Results tagged ‘ James Russell ’

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Five

Playing professional baseball is a dream job, but it’s not the most likely career choice. So what would your favorite players be doing if their big league dreams hadn’t come true? We talked to Cubs personnel about some other possible career choices.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa: Positive Energy in Cubs Camp
Cubscast Mesa: Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four

Now Playing: Cubscast Mesa, Positive Energy in Cubs Camp

Spring is a time for hope, optimism and new beginnings. This season, the Cubs are welcoming a new manager, several new coaches and a host of new players to the fold.

We talked to Cubs personnel, new and old, about the feeling in camp this year and how things are different under skipper Rick Renteria.

We’ll be posting videos and stories from Cubs Park throughout the spring, so watch the blog and our Twitter account, @cubsvineline.

Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:

Cubscast Mesa, Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four

Cubs bullpen has turned things around

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The first two weeks of the season were a struggle for the Cubs relief corps. Despite strong efforts from one of the NL’s best rotations in the club’s first 12 games, the bullpen blew four save opportunities, compiled a 5.82 ERA and repeatedly failed to secure victories in winnable games.

But the ‘pen’s performance in the last two weeks is making those early-season woes look like a thing of the past. In the last 13 games, the relievers have compiled a 1.85 ERA, third in the NL during that stretch. Though they still walk too many hitters (9.5 walk percentage, second highest in NL since April 16), the bullpen has found a way to get out of jams, leaving an NL-best 92.4 percent of runners on base.

The Cubs have been in every game this season—all but three have been decided by three runs or fewer and none by more than four—which means a strong bullpen is often the difference between winning and losing. What the team looks to have gained in recent weeks is a “give me the-ball” type finisher. Though manager Dale Sveum has not named a closer and prefers a bullpen-by-committee approach, the North Siders acquired veteran late-innings reliever Kevin Gregg, who was released by the Dodgers at the end of Spring Training. Since making his debut on April 19, Gregg has been lights out, surrendering no earned runs in his first six appearances and racking up four saves.

Despite Opening Day closer Carlos Marmol’s early failures, surrendering five earned runs in his first 1.2 innings pitched, he hasn’t given up a run since April 6. He has still walked eight batters in those nine innings, but he’s managed to miss a lot of bats in that time too, striking out nine.

The most consistent relief pitcher all season has been southpaw James Russell. The 26-year-old has leaned heavily on his 80 mph slider, throwing it 45 percent of the time, while mixing in a fastball and change-up. So far this season, his strikeout totals have improved dramatically. He’s now fanning 10.6 batters per nine, three K/9 better than last season. In 11 innings, he’s walked just one batter and hasn’t given up an earned run. He’s been so effective that his 0.6 wins above replacement (according to fangraphs.com) is tied for the best among relief pitchers in baseball.

To round things out, Shawn Camp looks like he might have rediscovered his 2012 form after struggling early, and waiver pickup Kameron Loe has been reliable in his five innings since being claimed off waivers from Seattle. Though the relievers’ .269 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) might indicate they’re pitching a little above their ability (an average BABIP is around .300), a solid effort from these pitchers all season long could make a big difference in 2013.

Pitcher Profile: James Russell

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Other Pitching Profiles:

• RHP Edwin Jackson

• LHP Travis Wood

• RHP Scott Feldman

• RHP Jeff Samardzija

• RHP Carlos Villanueva


James Russell was drafted as a starter in 2007, but the southpaw from the University of Texas was summoned to the bullpen during his 2009 minor league season—a move that has paid off for the organization. Russell posted a 4.96 ERA in 49 innings in 2010 and then a 4.12 ERA in 67.2 innings the following year. Though he showed improvement with each season, he really found his niche as a middle-to-late-innings reliever in a breakout 2012 season.

Recording a career-best 3.25 ERA in 69.1 innings of relief, he remained constant in a rather unstable bullpen. Both his strikeout and walk totals could stand a little improvement for a reliever (55 K, 23 BB), but he did manage a respectable 8.7 H/9 total. Throw in his seven wins (good for third on the team), and 2012 was a successful year for the 27-year-old.

Russell is one of several pitchers profiled in Vine Line’s 2013 Pitching Preview, available in the April issue, on sale now. We’ll be posting pitching profiles throughout the month, so be sure to check back to see what’s in store on the mound for 2013.

JAMES RUSSELL

Repertoire (Avg. MPH): 4-seam (90), 2-seam (89), Cutter (88), Change (82), Slider (82), Curve (74)

Age: 27

2012 Stats: 69.1 IP, 18.8 K%, 5.6 UBB%, 3.25 ERA, 121 ERA+, 1.30 WHIP

Last Season: The 2012 bullpen makeover elevated Russell and Shawn Camp to the team’s No. 2 relievers (based on Tom Tango’s metric Leverage Index), with Russell getting a greater share of the team’s critical innings as the season went along. Russell also became a more substantial bridge to the closer. In 2011, Russell faced one batter in 20 percent of his appearances; in 2012, he did that in just seven of 77 games (9 percent).

Plan of Attack: A reliever vs. lefties and a starter vs. righties. Russell lives away, away, away. It may be predictable, but his ability to locate with a deep arsenal makes it effective. His splits against lefties and righties were virtually the same—from AVG/OBP/SLG to K% and UBB%. It looks like there’s a reason for it, though he’ll have to prove he can sustain the trend.

Against left-handers, Russell becomes more or less a two-pitch guy, primarily relying on his low three-quarters arm angle to sweep sliders away. He also pitches backward. He threw a breaking ball on 76 percent of 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 62 percent strikes.

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 is about half and half, and his cutter, two-seamer and change all play more significant roles. Using his full repertoire gives him a continuum of speeds and movement to keep hitters guessing.

Putaway Pitch: Slider. Though Russell relies on his breaking ball more on the first pitch, it’s still a weapon late in the count. Lefties have trouble laying off it, and righties struggle to pull the trigger as it comes through the backdoor.

Spring Training Preview: In the Bullpen

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Baseball is finally back. Pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training this past weekend, and Cubs fans everywhere got a little more excited with the realization that the baseball season is almost here.

To get us back into gear, the February issue of Vine Line previewed the squad heading into Mesa, Ariz. We broke the team down into five categories—starting pitching, relief pitching, infielders, outfielders and catchers—to give fans a clearer picture of what to expect when the Cubs break camp and head to Chicago.

Below is a look at the bullpen. The February issue is on newsstands now, with single issues available by calling 800-618-8377. Or visit the Vine Line page on Cubs.com to subscribe to the magazine.


After a brutal start to the season and a demotion from the closer’s role, Carlos Marmol seemed to be back near peak form by the end of 2012. In 29.2 innings after the All-Star break, Marmol converted 12 of 13 saves, posted a 1.52 ERA and struck out 39 batters. However, there is speculation he may be traded before the season starts, which would open the door for new Cubs reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, 32, to assume closing duties. The Japanese import, who has closed in Japan, has a variety of pitches but relies mostly on his low-90s fastball and splitter.

Besides Marmol and Fujikawa, James Russell and Shawn Camp are the only bullpen arms who had strong 2012 seasons. However, relievers are the most inconsistent commodities in baseball, and one can never assume that previous success guarantees the same in the future.

There are several names that could step up in the bullpen. Arodys Vizcaino, acquired from the Braves last season, is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Though the Cubs hope he can be a starter in the long run, he could also help as a reliever this season. Jaye Chapman, who showed his change-up could be a devastating out pitch, was impressive in limited duty toward the end of 2012. Players like Alberto Cabrera, Tony Zych (a 2011 draft pick who drew positive reviews in the Arizona Fall League) and former top prospect Trey McNutt could each surprise and end up as important cogs in the late innings.

Plus, with the Cubs’ surplus of starters, pitchers like Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva or Travis Wood could end up spending significant time in the ’pen.

1000 Words: Camp works on his short game

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs relievers Shawn Camp and James Russell, and bullpen coach Lester Strode, take some time out from the Cubs Caravan to work on their putting at D’Agostino’s Pizza in Lakeview. At the event, several Cubs players and coaches made pizzas with students from Blaine Elementary School.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Part 2 of our Q&A with Theo Epstein

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

For the January issue of Vine Line, we talked to Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein about the state of the organization. In part one of the interview, Epstein talked about his first year with the team and instituting the Cubs Way throughout the system. In part two, we cover the need for veteran leadership and the Cubs’ desire to add pitching at all levels. We’ll post part three on the blog next week. To read the entire interview, pick up the January issue or subscribe to Vine Line today.

Vine Line:  What’s your philosophy on the ideal mix of star players and role players on a team?

Theo Epstein: There are two ways to really improve your team in a hurry from one year to the next. One is sign impact players or bring in impact players from outside the organization. The other is to have a wave of young talent that’s approaching their prime years at the same time. Those teams that have a bunch of players going from 23 and 24 years old, when they’re first breaking into the big leagues, to 26 and 27, 27 being the start of a player’s prime in baseball, those teams get better in a hurry.

At some point in the future, if we have a bunch of those players who are entering their prime and improving together and we supplement that with some impact signings from outside the organization, we could really see a lot of improvement in a hurry.

VL:  After losing so many veterans at the trade deadline last season, who will fill the leadership void this year?

TE: We felt like we did get in a position where we traded some solid veteran leaders last year, but we also had some remaining. Alfonso Soriano doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, but he sets a tremendous example with his work ethic and his preparation. David DeJesus, as an example, is another great leader. He took Anthony Rizzo under his wing and gave him his daily workout routine and pregame prep. The two of them started working out together and getting ready for games together. That gave Anthony the confidence that he was going to be ready every game. Now he relies on that routine as part of his own mental preparation to be able to play at a high level.

So I do think we have some veterans remaining, but that’s certainly something we take into consideration as we put the team together. We don’t want to have a team that’s young and without the proper kind of veteran guidance in the clubhouse to help them adjust and become true pros and good teammates.

VL: It seems like the system is in a much better position in the infield and outfield, but is still lacking the pitching to compete consistently.

TE: To be blunt, I think you’re right. We simply don’t have enough talent yet. We have some really interesting arms down low—we have some guys who are going to be big leaguers—but we really need to focus on acquiring impact young pitching. No matter what we do with our position player corps, we’re not going to go anywhere unless we have the arms to match. So we made it a priority in just about every deal we made to get at least one arm back. After we took Albert Almora in the draft with our first pick, I think we took eight consecutive pitchers. And we’re going to continue to hammer away at acquiring young pitching. You have to do a lot of it through volume because of the amount of attrition involved in young pitching.

VL: What about the bullpen? James Russell really grabbed that Sean Marshall spot, and Carlos Marmol not only got his old stuff back but seems to have found his fastball. Were you happy with what you saw?

TE:  Overall, I wasn’t happy with the bullpen. It was disappointing as a whole, but there certainly were some bright spots. I think James Russell did a very admirable job continuing the progress he made toward the end of 2011, and really pitched even better when he was used deeper in the games, in more meaningful spots. He got left- and right-handed hitters out and showed a very consistent pitch mix, showed tremendous poise, and was a very reliable executor of pitches, even on the big stage. That was a big step forward for him. We see him as a guy who’s going to be in the ’pen for a long time.

And then Marmol did turn his season around. He got off to a really difficult start. I know it’s hard to look past that, but he worked really hard at following [pitching coach] Chris Bosio’s request to throw his fastball more, and all of a sudden his velocity crept up. He got some of that swing-and-miss quality back to his slider. And for the last three or four months of the season, he was a pretty good relief pitcher for us and closed games fairly consistently when we did give him that opportunity. So there were bright spots. … We just need to be more consistent from day one next year.

Woody’s Winter Warm-Up tickets on sale now

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(Art by Jerry Neumann)

Kerry Wood has spent most of his adult life honing his craft as a major league pitcher. So excuse him if he’s not a world-class bartender.

On Jan. 18, you’ll get your chance to see him in action and critique his skills as he slings drinks at the second annual Woody’s Winter Warm-Up at Harry Caray’s Tavern on Navy Pier. Starting at 8:30 p.m., Wood will join former and current Cubs players, as well as local celebrities, behind the bar, where they will compete for tips with all proceeds benefitting the Wood Family Foundation. Wood said the event is a good time, and current players like Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija and James Russell are expected to attend.

“People want to give back and do it for a good cause,” Wood said. “Last year … people got really into it, and it was really cool.”

At the inaugural mixer in 2012, the Grammy-nominated band Plain White T’s performed. They even got a little help from former Cub Randy Wells and baseball president Theo Epstein on a few songs. The event raised more than $85,000, thanks to about 30 current and former players, who pitched in behind the bar or simply enjoyed the evening.

But don’t count on Wood to make you the best Old-Fashioned or dirty martini of your life, as he admits this probably won’t be a new career path.

“I’m really good at taking the tops of beers off with the opener,” Wood joked. “I pour a mean glass of wine, but I’m not a mixologist.”

Tickets are on sale now and in limited supply. For more information, visit woodfamilyfoundation.org.

From the Winter Meetings: Sveum on the bullpen [Part 2]

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Former Cubs reliever and MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac (center) joined Brian Kenny and Tom Verducci for on-site reporting from the Winter Meetings.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Here are more Dale Sveum dispatches from the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort, where the halls have been buzzing on this last full day of the Winter Meetings.

• Sveum made it clear the bullpen is getting attention in the Cubs front office. The team already re-signed Shawn Camp, their lone free agent, and may look to add more.

“Upgrading the ‘pen is something we wanted to do. … Whatever happens from here on out—we’re talking to a lot of people, and hopefully things work out. But [Carlos] Marmol is our closer, and we’ve got to get better at the back end. We signed Shawn Camp back, James Russell, so that’s a start. But we have to get better in that seventh, eighth inning.”

Sveum wouldn’t directly comment on Japanese pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa, though the Cubs’ pursuit of the reliever attracted plenty of Japanese reporters to the manager’s press conference. Fujikawa, a free agent who saved 220 games over 12 years with the Hanshin Tigers, clearly intrigues Sveum.

“I think he can fill any kind of role. He’s got that kind of stuff. Those numbers and that ability to do things with three, four different pitches just doesn’t come around very often. So he can set up, he can close, do anything he wants with the baseball. He’s got four quality pitches and can add and subtract with his fastball. Yeah, I mean, he can pitch in the seventh, pitch in the eighth, pitch in the ninth, he can get left-handers out—so he can pitch in any kind of situation.”

• Sveum spent about a week in Arizona to see Cubs prospects, including highly regarded shortstop Javier Baez, who just turned 20 last week. Many have compared Baez’s bat speed to Gary Sheffield’s.

“Incredible bad speed. Didn’t get to see any results, but the bat speed was pretty good. I didn’t go to his best games. But he had a heck of a minor league season—the combination of the home runs and everything. He was a bigger kid than I thought when I saw him in person. I saw him without a shirt on one day, and I was like, wow, he’s a pretty big kid. But a lot of tremendous, tremendous tools at that age. That kind of bat speed just doesn’t come around at 19 years old.”

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.

Let’s take a closer look with PITCHf/x data, using the proprietary tags and tools provided by BrooksBaseball.net and Baseball Prospectus (player card).

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.

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