As spring training begins, Addison Russell and Tim Anderson are already proving their worth for their respective teams. Albeit in a limited number of at-bats, Anderson is hitting .467, while Russell has already collected two home runs. While both certainly have their flaws, both of their respective teams view them as a core player for years to come. But who’s really worth more praise?
Although their on-base percentages are similar, these two hitters could not be more different in how they achieve that number. Anderson hit the ball proficiently in 2016, his first year in the majors, racking up a batting average of .283 over 99 games. However, as was the case in the minors, he struggles with getting walks. As a result of his measly thirteen base-on-balls in 2016, his on-base percentage was only slightly higher than his batting average at .306. Disappointingly, Anderson worsened in his strikeout rate against major-league pitching, as he struck out 117 times.
For Russell, the stats tell quite a different story. Russell batted a meager .238 in 2016, nearly identical to his .242 output from his 2015 rookie season. Yet he drew 55 walks, vaulting his OBP to a .314 mark, slightly better than Anderson’s. Russell adds to his superior approach with the strikeouts as well, as in 52 more games he only struck out 18 more times.
Zoning in on the power numbers, the two aren’t that far apart. Russell swatted 21 long-balls in 2016, while Anderson launched nine, which when adjusted for less games, would still be inferior at 14. However, home runs are the only real advantage for Russell in this category. The slugging percentages favor Anderson, as he earned a .432 mark to Russell’s .417 in 2016. So while Russell may get you more dingers, Anderson makes up for it with all his two-baggers, as he snagged 22 doubles to Russell’s 25, meaning Anderson’s would likely surpass Russell’s easily if he had the same number of at-bats.
If it were up to Billy Beane and his on-base percentage favoritism, Russell might win the contest here. But there’s something to be said about hitting the ball. After all, a walk can only advance runners one base, while a hit could potentially push them two or three bases further. According to Baseball Reference, offensive wins above replacement, or oWAR, supports this notion. If you adjust Anderson’s number to compensate for Russell’s higher at-bat total, Anderson would boast a 3.2 oWAR. Russell’s 2016 total sits at just 2.1.
After all this, it’s clear that Anderson is the better hitter. This claim is especially justified when you see that he improved his low walk output as the year stretched on. After collecting just two total walks in June and July, he mustered 10 of them in August and September. With a boatload of time to work with Todd Steverson, the White Sox hitting coach, and teammates, Anderson’s approach should result in more acceptable walk numbers. And as he’s shown last season and this spring training, he possesses no issues hitting the ball.
As for Russell, the future doesn’t appear to be as bright at the plate. Comparing pre-All-Star break numbers to post-All-Star numbers, the only stat that notably improved was his slugging percentage, from .402 to .436. In fact, his on-base percentage dipped from .329 to .311 over those two periods. While he certainly has time to bolster his game like Anderson, changing your approach at the plate is a lot easier than changing your batting average. But let’s not get too critical. If he can up his batting average to a reasonable .250, and continues to post 20-plus home run type power numbers, he’ll be a solid hitter for the Cubs for years to come.
This is where we see the real value of Russell emerge, as Anderson’s defensive value is clearly behind Russell’s. First off, let me clarify that Tim Anderson is not a poor defender. He’s actually pretty solid with the glove at shortstop, as he totaled a 1.2 defensive WAR, or dWAR, over his shortened 2016 campaign. Compared to the rest of the league, that’s well above average. Despite this, Russell is markedly better with a 2016 dWAR of 2.7. Even adjusted for the innings difference, Anderson is still about 1 win behind.
For starters, they made the same amount of errors last season with 14. Adjusted for innings totals, Anderson makes errors about 1.5 times more often than Russell, at 20-21 errors last year. Illustrating the gap more effectively is the modern metric known as defensive runs saved, which combines multiple statistics to spit out a number which represents, well, exactly what the name says it does. The average DRS, which will fairly tell the story, gives Russell 18 DRS per year, to Anderson’s 8 DRS per year. Clearly, Russell helps the Cubs at defensively much more than Anderson does for the Sox.
Taking into account both areas of play, it’s hard to choose between the two. Total WAR, which is Baseball Reference’s attempt to completely sum up a player’s value, perfectly characterizes this debate. Adjusting for the game difference between the two, and using a little bit of rounding, the two would have been dead even at 4.3 WAR for 2016.
However, I think the winner here is Tim Anderson. He’s been in the league for a shorter amount of time than Russell, and has more years to clean up some areas of his game. He started showing progress in his approach last season, and looks great this spring training. Russell’s outlook is not as bright. Through two full seasons, he has yet to really increase his batting average, which is a difficult thing to improve. Looking ahead, I’m sure the Cubs won’t consider a .240 hitter being a vital asset for success. For the Sox, Anderson’s only inferiority thus far is his defense, but considering he’s still better than most of his colleagues, they aren’t concerned.
The truth is that both of these players have work to do. For now, fans rightly see them as a bright spot for years to come, but without significant improvements in certain areas, Chicago-ans won’t be as adoring of their shortstops. Perhaps the 2017 season will provide better insight into who really wins this battle.