Cubs' Addison Russell coming up big in the clutch

CHICAGO -- Does Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell have the clutch gene? Is there even such a thing in baseball? The concept of clutch hitting has always been hotly debated, but instead of rehashing it here, let’s just enjoy the small sample size that shows Russell is at his best in the most important moments of Cubs games this season.

Russell has some strange splits that might offer further support to the argument that his focus at the plate is best when the Cubs need him the most, but let’s start with this statistic: When the game is deemed late/close -- that is, when it’s the seventh inning or later in a one-run or tie game -- Russell is hitting a whopping .400 with a 1.255 OPS. Overall, he’s hitting .265, so it's safe to say something is going on when the game is on the line.

“It’s learning how to compete in the moment,” manager Joe Maddon said recently. “The heartbeat slows down.”

Maddon sees that in Russell both at the plate and in his personality. There’s a calm and quiet to him in the clubhouse, which apparently translates to some big moments in the game. At least, that’s what the Cubs think.

“He’s as consistent a personality as anyone on this team,” catcher David Ross said. “He’s very, very poised for such a young, young player. Even on defense, you don’t see him rush. He stays at an even keel.”

Ross is right about the even keel: It's not just late in close games that Russell is coming through by staying calm, it's really any time the Cubs find themselves in need of a spark.

Russell's coolness was on display several times last week, as he broke a scoreless tie against the San Diego Padres last Tuesday with an RBI double in the second inning, doubled home two more in a 2-2 game Wednesday, then hit a three-run shot to open the scoring on Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The common theme among those moments was that the game was tied at the time. That’s another Russell specialty: He’s hitting .360 with a 1.229 OPS when the game is even.

And that kind of production has him on pace to shatter the all-time record (111) for RBIs produced from the No. 7 spot in the batting order, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Russell already has driven in 27 runs, putting him on pace for about 121 over 162 games. That would also easily beat the Cubs' best mark of 93 RBIs by Gabby Hartnett, who hit seventh in 1930. And that’s not even taking into account the 42 plate appearances Russell’s had batting eighth.

Of course, Russell isn’t positive exactly what's working in the most important moments -- if he was, he would bottle it and be hitting .360 all the time.

“Just slowing the game down a little bit, I think,” he tried to explain over the weekend. “You pick out the location of where you want the pitch to be around.”

That seems simple enough, but maybe his coolness, combined with the heat on the pitcher, is working in his favor. Remember, the pitcher is in a jam or feeling the pressure -- at least as much as the hitter -- when the game is close and nearing the end. Whichever player can process it better might come out the winner. In fact, Russell’s ability to “process” within an at-bat is a quality Maddon thinks comes in handy for his shortstop.

“He’s able to process, file, let it go,” Maddon said. “If you’re talking about guys who are clutch, they stay in the present tense.”

Maddon referenced Friday’s home run, when Russell took a bad swing on a 2-1 pitch that hit dirt in front of the plate, “head flying” open, as Maddon put it. But after taking ball three, Russell hit the next pitch into the stands for a three-run homer and the Cubs never looked back, winning 9-4. Russell moved on from his bad swing to put a good one on the ball two pitches later.

“When he gets into those situations, he doesn’t think,” veteran Jason Heyward said. “He doesn’t make it more than it is, which is the way to be.

“He’s done a great job of that.”

In the above examples, Russell helped put the Cubs ahead in tie games, but he’s done his best work at the plate when the Cubs have been trailing -- which hasn’t been often. They’re not exactly getting blown out, so we have to assume his .417 batting average and 1.083 OPS when the Cubs are trailing is helpful despite, perhaps, the final outcome of the game.

Overall, in games where he’s played and the Cubs have lost, Russell is hitting .353. In wins, he’s hitting just .250. That’s what made his two-run triple last Tuesday against the Padres and his two-run home run on Saturday against the Pirates so unusual: The Cubs were leading both games at the time. For the season, Russell is hitting just .176 in those situations.

To review, Russell is hitting .400 when the game is tied, .417 when the Cubs are trailing and just .176 when they lead. Incidentally, they’re 1-3 when Russell doesn’t start this season.

“He lets the game happen,” Heyward said. “He lets the game come to him.”

The foundation of Russell’s approach this year has served him well in the bigger moments. It doesn’t sound like much, but the very best statistic to illustrate his advancing game at the plate is his strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s just 1.47 so far this season; it was 3.55 last year. He has 19 walks and has struck out just 28 times, an astounding number for a 22-year-old. In fact, that’s the best of any player his age or younger this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information. And it’s better than plenty of older veterans as well. It’s still way early, but the trend is going in the right direction for Russell, and that kind of plate discipline is allowing good things to happen in the big moments.

“I guess you get in a certain position and you just deliver a little bit more,” Russell said. “Maybe the pressure of the game. I kind of like that. It brings me back into football mode, but in a more competitive state. With me batting down in the lineup, I’m getting used to it.”