ATLANTA — To a certain extent, Cubs manager Joe Maddon is more concerned with Addison Russell’s progress in reading a Stephen King book than he is the 21-year-old second baseman’s batting average.
Maddon has Russell — the youngest player in the National League — listening to the audiobook version of "11/22/63," a novel about a man who travels back in time to try to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The goal, Maddon said, is to have Russell take his mind off baseball in his downtime.
“Just to get him when he leaves the ballpark, he leaves the ballpark and gets caught up in a different part of his imagination or mind and not dwell on particularly bad or good,” Maddon said. “… Have an escape and not just be this guy that just watches SportsCenter, reads about himself in the newspaper and never gets away from it.”
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Russell admitted this season is the first time he’s really experienced failure in his playing career, and Maddon doesn’t want him to think about it. After hitting .301 with an. 897 OPS over 244 minor league games, the former first-round pick and top five prospect has a .228 batting average and .648 OPS in the majors.
While Russell’s bat hasn’t come around yet, he’s played good defense at second base despite only appearing in five games there with Triple-A Iowa before his promotion. He has the third-highest Ultimate Zone Rating (5.3) and fourth-highest Defensive Runs Saved (7) among second baseman this season, so he’s providing value even if he’s struggling to hit out of the No. 9 spot in the Cubs’ order.
Maddon gave Jonathan Herrera the start at second base in Sunday’s series finale against the Atlanta Braves to give Russell a mental and physical break, though his everyday second baseman isn’t lacking in confidence.
“I still haven’t even figured out what kind of talent that I have,” Russell said. “It’s developing right now. I think that my confidence level is pretty high right now and things are going good right now. … I’m learning each day, but I’m getting there.”
That confidence is one of the reasons why Maddon isn’t concerned about Russell’s ability to handle the grind of August and September.
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“The one thing that would really make it difficult for him is if he were mentally tired, really fatigued mentally at that time of the year,” Maddon said. “That’s what would make it much more difficult. So by giving him these little breaks physically and mentally, he should be frisky by the end of the year.”
The Cubs expect Russell to be an important piece down the stretch as they envision ending a seven-year playoff drought. The goal is to keep him fresh, whether it takes intermittent days off or a novel for him to read.
Russell likes the book — “it’s really good,” he said — and offered an explanation of its plot. But he has to know about what's going on with Maddon frequently grilling him on the details.
Smiled Russell: “He stays on me pretty heavy about it.”