The throws that occasionally would tail and dip now head toward the chest of first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
And the chatter regarding a position switch involving shortstop Addison Russell has subsided for now.
Thanks to an increased emphasis on fundamentals and offseason work, Russell’s right throwing shoulder appears as strong as it has been since he switched from second base in August 2015.
“It’s just something I’ve been working on, making sure that my arm has (stamina) throughout the season,” Russell said. “Obviously I’m working on it throughout the spring, but it’s more important through the season. I’ve taken steps in the right direction for that to happen.”
Shortly after the 2017 season, President Theo Epstein said he and his staff briefly discussed Russell’s long-term future at shortstop, but it never reached a point where a position change to second — where he played the first 3½ months of his major-league career — was considered seriously.
But after Javier Baez moved from second to short in August when Russell was injured and Baez played a stretch of 26 consecutive errorless games while executing a mix of dazzling and routine plays, some outside Wrigely Field questioned Russell’s place.
Regardless of Baez’s slick fielding, Russell already was determined to find ways to improve his defense. Of his 14 errors in 2017, 14 were on throws. Several of those errant throws occurred on routine plays when his throws sailed or dipped past Rizzo.
The addition of coach Brian Butterfield has helped Russell with polishing his footwork and relying less on his arm.
“I’ve been trying to take information and put my athleticism and talent into what he’s saying,” Russell said. “That has been a huge thing. We’re getting on the same page as far as workload, I’m happy to have him as a coach because it’s the fourth week, and I’ve learned so much already.”
After being hired in late October, Butterfield studied videotape of Russell and his fellow infielders and addressed some areas to help him throw with a smoother delivery.
“All we’re trying to do is provide more consistency in many facets in the game,” Butterfield said. “We’re trying to make sure he feels his legs. That’s always a help. Sometimes the legs and creating a direct path cleans up other things that had him maybe a tad short in throwing the ball across.
Throughout this spring, Russell has made a few throws from a higher arm angle than past seasons. Russell emphasized that was unintentional, but the increased velocity from various angles has been noticeable.
“My arm is going to find its slot when I’m ready to throw, but it’s just more about getting my body in the right position to throw,” Russell said. “It has been working.”
Butterfield isn’t about to try to get in Russell’s way. He respects his pupil’s interest in learning and attention to detail in footwork.
“I try to be his eyes daily,” Butterfield said. “And I’ve watched enough video of him and the other infielders to know when they’re doing it well and what they’re not doing when they’re not quite as consistent. It has been fun working with him.”