The Chicago Cubs are streaking toward what would be their first postseason appearance since 2008, having won 13 of the last 14 games. They hold a 4.5 game lead on the second wildcard spot in the National League.
Some of the performance has to do with the franchise’s influx of rookie talent — Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber are all cogs in the starting lineup — coupled with the progressions made by the pitching staff.
It’s been Manager Joe Maddon’s decision to swap Russell into the ninth spot of the batting order, though, opting to bat his pitchers eighth, that’s worth a portion of the praise. As Neil Greenberg pointed out in April, the method gives top-of-the-lineup batters more opportunities to drive in runs.
Addison Russell's 73 hits from the 9th spot this season are the most by any player from the 9th spot in 101 years (Izturis, STL, 71, in 2008
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) August 12, 2015
“If you put him (Russell) seventh — or put him eighth and put the pitcher ninth — he’s going to see (fewer quality pitches),” Maddon told CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney in May. “The whole game plan by hitting him ninth, is twofold: To be the second leadoff hitter, in a sense, with a lot less pressure on you (and) the potential to see better pitches, because 1, 2 and 3 are hitting behind you.”
Traditionally, essentially every manager bats his pitcher ninth; the reasoning being that if your pitcher has the least powerful and adept bat in the lineup, batting them last will limit their plate appearances. Maddon, however, has opted to bat his pitcher eighth in each of the 113 games he’s coached as a manager in the National League.
The Cubs are basement dwellers in most offensive metrics. They don’t hit well for average (.240, 28th in Major League Baseball) or contact (23.9 strikeout percentage, 1st in MLB), but they rank third in the MLB in Fangraphs’ all encompassing base running metric and have spiked their on-base percentage from .300 in 2014 (28th) to .318 in 2015 (14th). In short: The roster has an overabundance of players that are proficient at striking out, but once the team has ducks on the pond, they’re dangerous.
Russell, who took over the ninth spot shortly after he was called up in April, has peppered the ball since the all-star break: .286 average with a .735 OPS plus a batting average on balls in play of .333. His seasonal averages are significantly higher than the rest of the league’s No. 9 hitters. From 1961 to 2014, the OPS for No. 9 hitters was .537, the same as it is for this season.
Russell is equal parts aid and spark; he’s allowing the Chicago pitching staff to steer clear of men-on-base situations while providing opportunities for the more potent bats at the top of the order: Dexter Fowler, Schwarber, Chris Coghlan, Anthony Rizzo. Chicago’s pitching staff which, while not transcendent, has improved at the plate this season, even with the addition of Jon Lester, who took 10 seasons and 67 plate appearances to register his first professional hit. Chicago pitchers have combined for 26 hits this season, but are registering better figures than the league average last season, per Fox Sports. Some of that could be a result of having more chances to begin innings at the plate rather than end them, alleviating some of the pressure.
Russell, though, is likely the engine that makes the approach work for Chicago. He has 311 at-bats in the nine-hole for the Cubs this season and likely will remain in that spot for the rest of the regular season, and perhaps into the playoffs. He’s a leadoff-type hitter with a quick motor, and you needn’t look farther to find why the Cubs are producing better offensive figures in nearly every metric since the all-star break.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.