Confidence, consistency key to Russell's success

Maddon: Shortstop 'in the conversation' for NL Gold Glove Award

Confidence, consistency key to Russell's success

LOS ANGELES -- The Cubs did not take batting practice on Tuesday at Petco Park -- they rarely do, because manager Joe Maddon feels it's overrated -- but Addison Russell was on the field prior to the game to do his early work. His extra effort is one of the reasons the shortstop is a leading candidate for a 2016 National League Gold Glove Award.

"He wants to be good, and he is good," Cubs third-base and infield coach Gary Jones said. "He wants to be better. He's one of those guys who comes every day and wants to get better every day."

Which is why Jones will hit grounders to Russell for about 10 to 15 minutes before a game.

"It's something I know I have to do," Russell said. "I know I feel more confident going into the game if I take ground balls before the game. Batting practice doesn't really make a difference to me. I really like to get at shortstop, move the feet around, go left to right, practice a few drills, and then I feel good going into the game."

Defensively, Russell leads all NL shortstops in zone rating (.873), and he is seventh in fielding percentage (.978), making 10 errors in 113 starts. It's almost impossible to count how many times his defensive wizardry has been featured in postgame highlights. Russell is tied with the Angels' Andrelton Simmons and the Indians' Francisco Lindor -- pretty good company -- for second in MLB with 14 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) among shortstops. The Giants' Brandon Crawford leads all shortstops with 17.

"He's definitely got to be in the conversation, legitimate conversation," Maddon said of any Gold Glove discussion regarding NL shortstops. "This guy on defense, it's getting to the point where there's no one else like that right now."

Just watch video of the play Russell made in the eighth inning Monday to rob the Padres' Wil Myers of a potential hit and RBI. The next day, Maddon presented Russell with a bottle of wine marked "6-3 -- Enjoy it" to commemorate it.

"His feet are so good," Maddon said. "Everybody looks at the whole picture and looks at the waist up all the time, but watch how he moves his feet. He's very simple with the feet, very frugal with his movements. There's nothing extravagant about his movements."

Russell focuses for a 6-3 putout

Maddon emphasizes "do simple better" -- it's one of the mottos on his T-shirts -- and wants his infielders to take that advice.

"The thing about Addy is he makes the routine plays and he's fundamentally sound, and that's far and beyond what you want," Jones said. "But when you make those fundamental plays like that, and then you make a play like [Monday], and you're like, 'Oh, wow.' That's what makes him so special is he makes routine plays night in and night out. The other plays are a bonus."

The early work helps Russell find his rhythm. Jones said they started doing it more after the All-Star break, and especially if the Cubs don't take batting practice for a few days. It's the shortstop's mechanism to help him prepare for the game.

When he does the drills, Russell doesn't use a smaller kid-sized glove -- although at 22, he's still pretty much a kid. The work has a purpose. It helps him get a feel for the stadium, for the dirt, for how the ball comes off the grass.

"Some guys just go out and take ground balls, but his work is precise," Maddon said.

Russell's glovework isn't the only aspect of his game that's getting attention -- his offensive numbers aren't too shabby, either. He leads all NL shortstops with 83 RBIs and is third in home runs with 19. Both Maddon and Jones feel the turning point in the season came when Russell was voted to start for the NL All-Star team.

Russell's two-run home run

"Since then, he's taken off," Jones said. "I think his personality is starting to come out, he's opening up a little, he's talking. He knows he belongs."

Russell is very quiet. He didn't complain last season when he had to play second base for the Cubs because Starlin Castro was at short. The turning point in the Cubs' 2015 season came on Aug. 7, when Russell was moved to shortstop.

"He's evolved for me," Jones said. "Last year, when he came up and played second base and then moved to short, you could tell the difference in his actions and the difference in confidence. I think it's grown and elevated from there. His confidence is so high, he believes he belongs at this level. That makes a world of difference. When a guy understands, 'You know what, I do belong here, I know I can do this now,' it's huge.

"I think you could arguably say he's the best shortstop in the National League. You could make that case."

If you're looking for a turning point for the Cubs this season, it could be when Maddon moved Russell up to the fifth spot in the lineup. He's batting .281 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 29 games there. Jones said that was a big confidence boost for Russell.

The Cubs' pitchers like having Russell behind them, too.

"When you have Addison and [second baseman Javier] Baez in the middle of the infield, two of the best athletes in all of baseball, you want the ball to go to those guys," Jake Arrieta said.

"We are a good match in the middle," Baez said.

Baez's barehanded double play

"I feel good when the ball is hit to him," Jones said of Russell. "I feel he's going to make every play. You tell a guy, 'Hey, be a boring player.' It's almost like he's boring until he makes a play like he made [Monday] night and then, whoa."

Russell is OK with being boring.

"It's every play, every single day," Russell said of his mantra. "The plays I don't make are normally the plays I can't get to. I just want to be consistent. I'm just trying to impact in my head and have a good work ethic and have a good motive to keep pushing forward to be the best infielder I can be. It starts with consistency. I take that to heart."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.