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March 2012

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James Russell: Terrible Starter, Pretty Good Reliever

Written by , Posted in General

James Russell started the 2011 season as the second left handed pitcher in the Cubs’ bullpen behind all world setup man Sean Marshall. Less than a week later, the Cubs were down two starting pitchers and moved Russell to the rotation. That experiment did not succeed, to say the least. Russell was terrible in the rotation, going only 18.1 innings in five starts and posting a 9.33 ERA.

Upon his return to the bullpen, Russell was much more successful, posting a 2.19 ERA over 49.1 appearances. However, Russell’s peripherals as a reliever were not asJames Russell strong as his results. Russell avoided walks out of the bullpen, giving a free pass to only 1.64 batters per nine innings. But he also did not post high strikeout totals as a reliever, with a 6.02 K/9 rate, and Russell is a fly ball pitcher (37.9% ground ball rate as a reliever). Unlike his time in the rotation, though, when 20% of those fly balls left the park, Russell was able to keep the ball in the yard as a reliever, posting a HR/FB rate 6.8%. This led to a FIP of 3.61 and an xFIP of 4.18 as a reliever.  The difference in the latter two metrics is that FIP considers HR/FB rate, while FIP normalizes that rate and considers ground ball percentage instead.

So what do all those numbers mean? That James Russell has some significant improvement to make if he is going to fill Sean Marshall’s role. But, prior to 2010, Sean Marshall was not who he is now. To be able to become that, though, Russell will either have to strike more hitters out, induce more ground balls, or some combination of both.

But enough of looking at what James Russell could potentially become and what he would have to do to get there. What is he now? At the least, right now he is a solid left handed specialist who has had great success against left handed hitters out of the bullpen, less success against right handed hitters, and should probably never start a Major League game again.

With the Cubs starting the season with Russell as the one left handed pitcher out of the bullpen, it is possible that a massive proportion of the hitters he faces could be left handed. It would not be a surprise to see Dale Sveum wait to use Russell until late inning situations where the Cubs will specifically have to deal with a tough left handed hitter or two. And the NL Central only has one good team with two left handed middle of the order bats in the Reds’ Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. While the Cardinals will have switch hitters Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman in the middle of their order, Berkman is the only one it is really important to try to turn around to the right side of the plate.

Odds are strong that, at the least, Russell will continue to have success as a solid left handed specialist. But, if he can raise the strikeout rate, ground ball rate or both against right handed pitchers he could become special as a reliever in the same vein as Sean Marshall’s last two seasons. It is a very difficult jump to make, but Russell should stick in the bullpen long enough to get every chance to prove if he can be more than just a LOOGY.

  • BLPCB

    What does LOOGY stand for?

    • Norm Bothwell

       Left handed One Out GuY – a left handed pitcher that comes in to get one left handed batter out.

    • Noah_I

      Lefty One Out GuY. 

  • AC0000000

    What does LOOGY stand for?

    • Norm Bothwell

       Left handed One Out GuY – a left handed pitcher that comes in to get one left handed batter out.

    • Noah_I

      Lefty One Out GuY. 

  • James Russell pitched the 8th inning of Wednesday’s Cleveland game, which I attended.
    The first batter grounded out on an awesome play by Starlin Castro.
    The second batter, pinch hitter Felix Pie, singled to center field.
    The third batter, a lefty, flew out to center field.
    The fourth batter doubled to left field, with Pie holding at third base.
    The fifth batter, a lefty, struck out.
    Two hits, no runs scored in one inning pitched.

    • I am “confused” by your website, C-Dude.  Dig the pics from HoHoKam…wish I was there.  

      • Sorry for any confusion.  Not intentional.  How can I help?

      • I like the site bud…it is just a weird mix of baseball, books, and videos.  I was ribbing you about your use of appostrophes…as I spew ellipses like they are going out of style.  Seriously jealous about you watching Cactus League baseball.  I’d like to be there to catch a game with you…we could nerd out on several fronts.   

      • Glad you like the site.  Thanks for visiting.
        The “weird mix” reflects my current interests, which are, at best, a “weird mix”.
        I am going to have to spend more time at Spring Training in the future.  I enjoyed it.

    • Doc Raker

      How is AZ Cubbiedude? Did you make it over to Don and Charlies?

      • Arizona is great when it’s not too hot.  It’s getting to be a little warm for me.  Fortunately, the seats I got for Wednesday’s game were in the shade.  And so, it was perfect.
        I’m not familiar with Don and Charlies, Doc.  
        We had brekkies/lunch at “Mango” on Main St., where the waiter warned us it was gonna be a hot one.
        After the game we heard the world’s biggest “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ”.  That was my wife’s choice and it was unique.  I’ll say that.
        Ran into lots of very nice folks in Mesa.  I’m gonna try to get back there.

        Speaking of places to go, Doc, yesterday we had a snack at Ruby’s at the end of the pier in Surf City.  Saw a bunch of dolphins off the end of the pier.  I have never seen that in HB before.  

        Also saw a sea lion cavorting off the pier, and some paintball aficionados on the beach.  An interesting cultural mixture. 

  • James Russell pitched the 8th inning of Wednesday’s Cleveland game, which I attended.
    The first batter grounded out on an awesome play by Starlin Castro.
    The second batter, pinch hitter Felix Pie, singled to center field.
    The third batter, a lefty, flew out to center field.
    The fourth batter doubled to left field, with Pie holding at third base.
    The fifth batter, a lefty, struck out.
    Two hits, no runs scored in one inning pitched.

    • I am “confused” by your website, C-Dude.  Dig the pics from HoHoKam…wish I was there.  

      • Sorry for any confusion.  Not intentional.  How can I help?

      • I like the site bud…it is just a weird mix of baseball, books, and videos.  I was ribbing you about your use of appostrophes…as I spew ellipses like they are going out of style.  Seriously jealous about you watching Cactus League baseball.  I’d like to be there to catch a game with you…we could nerd out on several fronts.   

      • Glad you like the site.  Thanks for visiting.
        The “weird mix” reflects my current interests, which are, at best, a “weird mix”.
        I am going to have to spend more time at Spring Training in the future.  I enjoyed it.

    • Doc Raker

      How is AZ Cubbiedude? Did you make it over to Don and Charlies?

  • Doc Raker

    James Russell is a LOOGY. Next.

  • Doc Raker

    James Russell is a LOOGY. Next.

  • Chuck

    Almost all mediocre to below average starter can become great bullpen guys.  That is where they come from.  I would wager that 99% of all pitchers in the majors right now were starters in high school or college. When they could not hack starting in the minors they shifted to the pen.
    Much like how 2B are born.  They are most likely SSs who couldn’t handle SS.

    • I sort of resent that cheap shot at second basemen.  Some of us were supplanted at third by fat dudes who could rake.  

      • BLPCB

        I too resent that. I was a 2B in little league

      • Chuck

        Like it or not, one of the first things coaches look at when considering players playing 3B and SS is “can that guy make the throw from 3B or SS to 1b?”  If the answer is “no”, but he has a good glove, he plays 2B.

        3B is a bit more tricky.  If you have a guy who can really hit, but is slow and has very little glove, 3B is a possible position to hide the guy.  You don’t want a guy who can’t catch playing 1B.  You don’t want a slow guy in the OF.

      • BLPCB

        But I played OF as well. I never played catcher or 1st bc I’m left-handed. I’ve never understood why a guy’s stick has an impact on where he plays in the field. What if the guy is a fielding wizard at 3rd, but he can’t hit? Why does he have to be moved to SS?

        Even though I played 2B and OF, I wasn’t a power hitter by any means, I was more of a scrappy hitter. Working the count, line drives, bunts, hitting to all fields. In my 3 years of Little League, I only had 1 extra base hit, the championship winning hit in my final game. Top of the last inning, tie game, bases loaded, 2 outs, I cleared the bases with a double, took 3rd on the throw home, ignoring my coach’s stop sign, and then the catcher tried to nail me at 3rd, but threw it into LF, and I scored on the overthrow. Then the bottom, they loaded the bases with 2 outs, and I saved the championship by robbing a grand slam. I didn’t catch it, but I prevented it from going over, started the relay home and prevented an inside-the-park grand slam to win the championship. Fun times.

      • AC0000000

        But I played OF as well. I never played catcher or 1st bc I’m left-handed. I’ve never understood why a guy’s stick has an impact on where he plays in the field. What if the guy is a fielding wizard at 3rd, but he can’t hit? Why does he have to be moved to SS?

        Even though I played 2B and OF, I wasn’t a power hitter by any means, I was more of a scrappy hitter. Working the count, line drives, bunts, hitting to all fields. In my 3 years of Little League, I only had 1 extra base hit, the championship winning hit in my final game. Top of the last inning, tie game, bases loaded, 2 outs, I cleared the bases with a double, took 3rd on the throw home, ignoring my coach’s stop sign, and then the catcher tried to nail me at 3rd, but threw it into LF, and I scored on the overthrow. Then the bottom, they loaded the bases with 2 outs, and I saved the championship by robbing a grand slam. I didn’t catch it, but I prevented it from going over, started the relay home and prevented an inside-the-park grand slam to win the championship. Fun times.

  • Chuck

    Almost all mediocre to below average starter can become great bullpen guys.  That is where they come from.  I would wager that 99% of all pitchers in the majors right now were starters in high school or college. When they could not hack starting in the minors they shifted to the pen.
    Much like how 2B are born.  They are most likely SSs who couldn’t handle SS.

    • I sort of resent that cheap shot at second basemen.  Some of us were supplanted at third by fat dudes who could rake.  

      • AC0000000

        I too resent that. I was a 2B in little league

  • Shark is third in our rotation.  Nice.  

    • Noah_I

      While I agree with both sides of the Shark starting argument (on the one hand, what do we have to lose by trying him there this season; on the other, I think the experiment is pretty likely to fail), I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the number assigned to each starter.  Might have been because the Nationals are pretty terrible from the left side of the plate.  Their best left handed hitter is Adam LaRoche.  Their second best is Roger Bernadina.  Danny Espinosa is pretty good, but he’s a switch hitter.  Not that the Brewers are all that good left handed, but the Cubs may have liked the Maholm v. Brewers match up more.  Or they could have just pretty much drawn it out of a hat after Dempster and Garza.

      • Gymjok

        Maholm was put at #5 because he was sick at the beginning of camp
        and is behind, getting ready wise, the other starters.

      • BLPCB

        But then how do we get it to what we want it to without having to use the All-Star break to juggle everything up?

      • Noah_I

        Ah, that does make sense.

    • Jedi

      We’re going to slap an IP limit on that guy for the year right?  He’s thrown roughly 125, 130, 88 over the last three seasons (combined at all levels).  If he throws more than 150 on this crap team someone should be losing their job.  That’s not to say that we need to baby all pitchers – but on this specific team, with this specific pitcher there should be a solid “do not exceed” number of IP.

      • Noah_I

        I agree, if Samardzija is successful in the rotation, he should be limited to at the most 150-160 innings.  But there’s no one else I look at in this rotation and think there should be a limit.  Everyone else has started long term.  And are we agreeing twice in two days?  Did one of us get our Disqus log on info stolen?

      • Jedi

        Go look at the season predictions…we’re not far off there either – I think 7 of the 10 playoff spots are the same.  We both have the Phillies advancing.

  • Shark is third in our rotation.  Nice.  

    • Noah_I

      While I agree with both sides of the Shark starting argument (on the one hand, what do we have to lose by trying him there this season; on the other, I think the experiment is pretty likely to fail), I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the number assigned to each starter.  Might have been because the Nationals are pretty terrible from the left side of the plate.  Their best left handed hitter is Adam LaRoche.  Their second best is Roger Bernadina.  Danny Espinosa is pretty good, but he’s a switch hitter.  Not that the Brewers are all that good left handed, but the Cubs may have liked the Maholm v. Brewers match up more.  Or they could have just pretty much drawn it out of a hat after Dempster and Garza.

      • Gymjok

        Maholm was put at #5 because he was sick at the beginning of camp
        and is behind, getting ready wise, the other starters.

      • Noah_I

        Ah, that does make sense.

    • Jedi

      We’re going to slap an IP limit on that guy for the year right?  He’s thrown roughly 125, 130, 88 over the last three seasons (combined at all levels).  If he throws more than 150 on this crap team someone should be losing their job.  That’s not to say that we need to baby all pitchers – but on this specific team, with this specific pitcher there should be a solid “do not exceed” number of IP.

      • Noah_I

        I agree, if Samardzija is successful in the rotation, he should be limited to at the most 150-160 innings.  But there’s no one else I look at in this rotation and think there should be a limit.  Everyone else has started long term.  And are we agreeing twice in two days?  Did one of us get our Disqus log on info stolen?

      • Jedi

        Go look at the season predictions…we’re not far off there either – I think 7 of the 10 playoff spots are the same.  We both have the Phillies advancing.

  • Buddy

    The headline says it all. Nice work Noah. As many VFTBers have said for some time now, Russell is useful if you limit his exposure to RHB. 

    • Noah_I

      Thanks much Buddy.  Greatly appreciated.

  • Buddy

    The headline says it all. Nice work Noah. As many VFTBers have said for some time now, Russell is useful if you limit his exposure to RHB. 

    • Noah_I

      Thanks much Buddy.  Greatly appreciated.

  • Mark Strickler

    This will be a career-deciding year for Russell IMO – I agree totally with Noah’s assessment of how Russell did as a reliever vs. a starter.  Ideally the Cubs need one more lefty out there to counteract opposing managers; if Russell proves himself out in the pen he could become a fixture out there for the next few years.  Conversely if he has another “meh” year he’ll likely be wearing somebody else’s uniform next year.  I wish him the best!