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In Spite of Strikeouts, Kyle Russell Keeps Slugging


Chattanooga Lookouts outfielder Kyle Russell developed a reputation for two things in the low minors–massive power and massive strikeouts.

Indeed, he burst on the scene in the Low-A Midwest League with 26 homers in 2009, but the “180” in the strikeout column and “23” in the age column left many doubting whether Russell was a serious prospect.

Russell was placed in the High-A California League last year, a league in which he really didn’t belong–there was no doubt that a power monster like himself would crush the ball in the offense-happy West Coast environments, and he hit .354/.448/.692 in 53 games there to drive the point home. Even then, he still struck out 64 times.

Promoted to Double-A at midseason last year, Russell was at a crossroads, already turning 24 and staring down the level at which most batters of his ilk tend to be engulfed by their primary weakness.

All sorts of top High-A performers, especially ones from the California League, have struggled upon promotions to Double-A, and just never figured the upper minors out. Look at Cody Johnson and Jonathan Gaston for two recent examples.

Predictably, following his promotion last year, Russell was less than stellar. He struck out 113 times in 76 Double-A games, but at least managed to sock 36 extra-base hits and hit .245/.319/.463. Unlike many strikeout-prone sluggers, Russell’s an athletic player who plays a good right field, so that line didn’t completely quash his career prospects.

Returning to Double-A this year, Russell obviously needed to show progress, and to prove that he could crush upper-minors pitching, too. In order to do that, the thinking was that he’d have to fix his swing and stop striking out.

Well, Russell’s hitting .280/.346/.557 this season, with 38 extra-base hits in just 69 games, so he’s certainly come through.

But he’s still struck out 84 times.

It’s easy to get caught up in the strikeout total of a minor league slugger, particularly if they don’t walk a whole lot (Russell has 21 walks). But still, Russell clearly has massive power and can clear any fence. It would be a huge shock to see him struggle in Triple-A Albuquerque, another hitter’s paradise, whenever the Dodgers promote him to the Pacific Coast League. With that extremely likely to happen, Russell will probably get a look in the big leagues at some point.

Russell shouldn’t be dismissed just because of his strikeouts. He’s got a number of advantages over, say, Jack Cust, in that he’s a solid defensive player and isn’t entirely dependent on homers to get his slugging percentage up, as Russell hits lots of doubles and triples.

In the end, though, there are just some players who manage to hit .250 or higher even when striking out over once per game. Ryan Howard is a good example, and while Russell may not have Howard’s power, he’s pretty high on that scale.

That said, giving Russell an unqualified “future good starting outfielder” tag is quite premature. Just like it’s extremely unpredictable as to how sluggers will far going from the California League to Double-A, it’s anyone’s guess how somebody with this profile will fare in the big leagues. While the strikeouts alone shouldn’t dismiss Russell from consideration, they are a considerable blemish, and hitters with this profile are often doubted so much that they need to chance upon extended playing time (a la Cust) to prove themselves. The fact that Russell turns 25 in a few days and has yet to see Triple-A doesn’t help.

It’s certainly encouraging, however, that Russell stepped up his game against Double-A pitching and didn’t wilt in the upper minors as so many similar hitters before him have. It’ll be very interesting to watch his fireworks show from here.