Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why James Russell struggling shouldn't scare you...yet

Some of you read the title of this article and said, "Who the hell is James Russell? Does he play for us?" I want you to channel that feeling. I want you to cook it for a while with some sugar, pop it in a mason jar, and put it up for the winter. Why? Because you're going to be asking yourself, "Who the Hell is <insert random guy playing today>?" a good bit. And I want you to have plenty of that feeling leftover for making soup.

James Russell is a long-haired reliever you may remember from last year if you paid attention to some of the middle innings where we weren't scoring runs. That's a wide swath of baseball so I can forgive you if your brain checked out of those games for the finer things in life. Like ignoring Twitter.

Russell is lefty we got from the Cubs, and we're currently paying about $2.5M to pitch. That may sound like a lot for a reliever, because it is. In fact, if we weren't paying him that kind of money, we might cut him after spring ended because of the way he's been pitching.

How bad has it been? Well he's pitched 7.2 innings, given up 10 hits, 10 runs, 3 gopher balls, walked 3, and struck out 3. His spring ERA is 10.57, and his WHIP is 1.70. His entire line taken together looks like a guy who was left out on the line to dry out a bad performance against the Rockies in Colorado. But no, he actually did this in three games.

Why has it been so bad? It's because Russell's pitches lack any movement. What do I mean by that? Well, in the major leagues you have to have action on a fastball or changeup, or major league hitters will turn it into a fine paste. Reference a homer that Evan Gattis hit off Russell that landed somewhere in Iowa. That means the ball has to at least have some kind of positional change from right down the pipeline, no matter how fast you throw it. For most of Russell's pitches in spring, he's been throwing deadline meatballs.

So why shouldn't you panic when I just informed you that a guy you may not remember is pitching terribly? Because it's three games in spring, and Russell got a late start due to injury. The entire reason for spring training isn't hitters, it's so that pitchers can jack around with stuff and get their work in so they don't serve up meatballs in April.

James proved last year that he can pitch in the majors. He only gave up 3 homers in 57 innings, he had a respectable middle reliever ERA in the high 2's between the Braves and the Cubs, and his WHIP was only 1.13. Plus he's a lefty option. I can't stress how big that is in the reliever world. If you're remotely functional as a lefty, you can basically write your own ticket in this league.

So don't panic yet if you watched a few of these late games and saw Russell get knocked around. He's got plenty of time to sort this out. The time to worry if when his WHIP is over 1.50 in May and he's given up 4 homers in 10 appearances. If that's happened? Feel free to stone him and the front office that took on Russell's $2.5M contract.


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