An old saying in every sport is the “sophomore slump” for a player that struggles in his second year of action. With so many young players that are entering that area for the Cubs in 2016, it is easy to point to that as a possible fallback for bad performance. However, the Cubs sophomores are performing, and getting better.
One of the storylines for the 2015 Cubs was the young kids coming up from the minor leagues and performing, while helping the Cubs reach the NLCS. Heading into 2016, the worry with some people was about the dreaded “sophomore slump” with these young Cubs. It is one of the worst narratives to have for a young player, but these Cubs don’t seem affected by it (or really anything for that matter). While a slow start has caused some to concern, the two sophomores for the Cubs, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, are on their way to prove that this “sophomore slump” won’t affect these Cubs.
Starting with the sophomores, why not start with the reigning National League Rookie of the Year? Kris Bryant, the highly touted top prospect for the Cubs, busted onto the scene in 2015 by posting a 6.5 fWAR, which was good for 10th overall in baseball and the third highest among Major League 3rd basemen, behind Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado. 2016 started with high expectations for Bryant, and Bryant has picked up where he left off. Through Wednesday, the third baseman has a slash line of .280/.352/.500 in 91 plate appearances, with four home runs, six doubles, and 15 knocked in, while compiling 1.0 fWAR in the process. Actually, these numbers could even get better. His batting average on balls in play is only .317, which is 61 points lower from his 2015 mark of .378. Bryant has not had a BABIP lower than .333 in his professional career. One of the adjustments Bryant has made this season is his swing rates. In 2015, Bryant had the worst contact rate on pitches in the strike zone in all of baseball, making contact with just 75.8% of balls in the zone. This year, the third baseman has raised that mark to 81.6% of the time, which is still slightly below league average, but is still an improvement. Another good early sign for Bryant is his strikeout rate in down over 10%, from 30.6% in 2015 down to 19.6% this year. Bryant’s bat is not the only part of his game that has gotten off to a hot start, his play in the field has been fantastic. Bryant is 3rd among all Major League 3rd baseman in defensive WAR, UZR, UZR/150 and seventh in defensive runs saved. Bryant has also made every play in left field, when he has been out there. Bryant is one of the best third baseman in baseball and one of the best players in the league. If he continues this, he will come close to matching the production of 2015, with no delayed start.
After Bryant made his debut in 2015, a few days later Addison Russell got the call and became the Cubs primary second baseman. Once Russell took over full time at shortstop at the beginning of August, that is when the young Cub took off. Russell’s offensive game wasn’t great last year, but a second half stance adjustment helped him immensely. During the second half of 2015, Russell hit .259/.318/.427 good for a .744 OPS, which was almost 100 points higher than his first half, which is understandable for a guy who had just 59 career plate appearances at AAA before he was called up to the majors. In 2016, Russell, who has been moved out of the 9 hole where he hit all of 2015, got off to a slow start, but has picked it up lately. Through Wednesday the 22-year-old shortstop is hitting .234/.342/.375 in 76 plate appearances. One aspect of Russell’s game that has improved from 2015 has been his walk rate and his strikeout rate. Last year, Russell had an 8.0% walk rate and a 28.5% strikeout rate. However, this season Russell is up to a 13.2% walk rate and his strikeout rate is down to 17.1%. His average may be down, but Russell has been subject of some bad luck to this point. His batting average on balls in play is .260, which is 64 points lower than his .324-mark last year. To couple with that, his hard hit contact rate is up from 27.1% to 28.8%. Also, Russell’s contact rate on balls in the strike zone has went up as well, from 71.1% in 2015 to 76.6% this year. When you think about Russell, his defense is the one strength you think of, and he has not disappointed. Russell ranks 5th among Major League shortstops in defensive runs saved and UZR/150 and fourth in defensive WAR and UZR. Russell continues to be one of the premier shortstops in the National League and in all of baseball. As his bat continues to improve, he is even going to be more dangerous.
The Cubs have a bundle of young talent that surrounds the nucleus of the team. Kris Bryant and Addison Russell have performed since their debuts in April of 2015 and continue to be a big piece of the Cubs formula for their hot start in 2016. The team is playing well, as one of the best teams in baseball. Bryant and Russell are showing that their 2015 season was a building block going forward and not just a flash in the pan, which no one expected it to be. As the two continue to grow, the Cubs left side of the infield will be locked in for many years to come, which is very nice to see. The Cubs have a ton of young talent, but Bryant and Russell are the two sophomores that are going to be a huge part of the Cubs success in 2016.