Chicago Cubs left-handed relief pitcher James Russell was a valuable member of two terrible teams heading into the 2014 season. However, one often wondered how exactly he was able to be effective despite possessing lackluster stuff. Nevertheless, Russell had a respectable 3.59 ERA in 2013 and a 3.25 ERA in 2012 which kept him on the Major League roster.
Anyone watching him pitch, though, knew that he simply wasn’t this good and the advanced statistics backed this up.
In 2013, while his ERA was 3.59 which is simply okay for a relief pitcher, Russell’s FIP was a more daunting 4.45 while his xFIP was hideous at 4.77. The Cubs must have known what was in store for 2014, but apparently they forgot to tell manager Rick Renteria.
Renteria’s favorite pastime of the 2014 season — other than challenging plays for which he leads the league — has been removing starting pitchers too early and bringing on Russell in the hopes that he can get out a key lefty or turn around a switch hitter. The problem is that Russell is the Cubs’ worst relief pitcher and the numbers bear it out.
In 2014, Russell is fifth overall in MLB for allowing inherited runners to score with seven. The leader, Aaron Barrett of the Washington Nationals, has allowed nine inherited runners to score. Despite this, Renteria continues to trot Russell out in key situations, caring more about the lefty-on-lefty matchup than the overall effectiveness of his relief pitchers.
Russell comes at the opposition with a limited arsenal of pitches that batters can tee-off on. His fastball is lucky to hit 89 while his slider fools no one and his change-up is similarly ineffective. Russell is the type of guy who can stick around the league simply due to the fact that he throws left-handed, but without a lick of upside there is no reason for him to continue to pitch for this Cubs team.
Instead, the Cubs should recall minor league left-handed relief pitcher Zac Rosscup. In his limited time up with the Cubs in 2014 ,Rosscup struck out five in four innings while allowing just one hit and two walks. Rosscup has far superior stuff to Russell, with a fastball in the low 90s and a change-up, both of which he can throw for strikes, in addition to his best pitch which is a sharp-breaking curveball.
Rosscup began the 2013 season in Tennessee and struck out 66 batters with a 2.49 ERA in 43.1 innings pitched before being promoted to Iowa where he struck out 12 in nine innings, allowing three runs. There is no doubt that this Cubs team would be better off with Rosscup in the bullpen and Russell demoted or placed on waivers. If he does continue to stay on the team, though, someone should at least let Renteria in on the secret that Russell simply isn’t any good.