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 as 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.