How an ex-MLB reliever is providing a blueprint for the future of pitching in Mexico
James Russell is arguably the top pitcher on the best pitching staff in Liga Mexicana de Béisbol
Three conflicts form the backbone for most stories -- person vs. person, person vs. nature, and person vs. self. On occasion, an intrepid soul argues for the inclusion of person vs. society. Person vs. baseball league, comparatively, has no traction. Perhaps that's because few realize how difficult it is to succeed in an environment as unfavorable as Liga Mexicana de Béisbol.
LMB pitchers have much to contend with: Mexico's heat, the altitude's thin air, and this season's juiced ball that has enabled. What does it take to excel in a league where all the elements -- including the game's keepers -- conspire against keeping runs off the board? Evolution, of course, on a personal and a personnel level.
James Russell last pitched in the majors in 2016. In the three-plus years since, he's plied his trade in Triple-A, in two independent leagues (the American Association and the Atlantic League), and in LMB, where he's now under the employ of the Toros de Tijuana. Russell is in Mexico, he jokes to CBS Sports, because nobody wanted him in their minor-league system. At least the pay is decent.
American fans may recall Russell as a well-built left-handed reliever with good genes who spent parts of seven seasons in the majors with the Chicago Cubs, among other organizations. He's transitioned back to starting in recent years -- a role he likes -- and is flourishing this season.
Through 15 appearances, Russell has tallied 74 innings while accumulating a 2.07 ERA and six strikeouts per walk. He leads the Tijuana staff -- which has the lowest ERA in LMB by nearly a half run per nine innings -- in ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and ranks third in innings pitched.
Those numbers would impress anywhere, but especially in the Mexican league, where the average pitcher has a 5.83 ERA. The league office deserves some blame for that mark. In May, LMB's CEO Javier Salinas admitted they had changed balls and manufacturers with the hope of generating more offense. The change has worked -- too well, even. The average team has an .851 OPS this season, some 50 points higher than last year.
Russell's story, then, is more than the standard one told so often amid the backdrop of a foreign league -- "established big-league veteran shreds a lower level of competition." Rather, his is the tale of a pitcher beating the odds through redefinition -- and, perhaps, along the way providing a blueprint for the league's future.
Despite more than 98 percent of Russell's big-league appearances coming in relief, he always worked with a deeper arsenal than the typical two-pitch reliever. During the 2014 season, arguably his finest statistically, he threw six pitches at least seven percent of the time, per PITCHf/x data.
Five years have passed and Russell has thinned his pitch herd. He ditched his cutter because it interfered with his slider. He has also reshaped his usage of his remaining pitches based in part on feedback he received from new technology. Though he said he'd "never been a big spin rate guy," he started monitoring his bullpens with a Rapsodo, a pitch tracking device. He kept working on imparting more spin on his fastball, and reached a point where he could justify leaning on his four-seamer, with his curve, slider, and changeup serving as his complementary offerings.
While LMB's new ball -- more tightly wound and possessing more "go" than its predecessor -- favors hitters, Russell believes it has had a positive impact on his game. "I noticed my curveball has gotten pretty good," he said. "The break is more consistent and I never have to go searching for it."
Beyond Russell's new spin rate-informed approach and the ball's impact on his breaking stuff, he believes his confidence is to credit for his success this season. The looser environment in Mexico -- where music can be heard throughout the game -- helps as well. "It's fun. It's more relaxing," Russell said. "Yeah, it's a job, a business, but you don't have the pressures ... you worry about the results, but it's not like, 'Hey there's a younger kid waiting in the wings coming to take your job.'"
Most change is believed to be borne from necessity. Humans are stubborn creatures, adapting only when demanded. Hard times make hard people, pressure makes diamonds, cliches make eyes roll. Pitching in LMB offers a thin enough margin for error for that species of change to occur. But LMB may offer room for another kind, too: the kind that comes when presented with a laid-back atmosphere and the freedom to tinker without existential consequence -- think a reporter toying with a novel, or a singer partaking in a jam session. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote once "enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety."
Whether Russell is frequenting that boundary is for him to decide. It is interesting to note that when he's asked about his home-run suppression secrets, he instead talks about his philosophy on walks. "I've always been a guy where, I've given up home runs but I don't walk guys," he said. "If I walk a guy in a game, then that bugs me more than giving two solo home runs."
The implication is clear: a walk equals four mistakes; a pair of solo home runs equals two errors -- sometimes less in Mexico. The distinction seems silly, especially when home runs are the ones that always show up on the scoreboard. But the through-line is there: control what can be controlled, thoughts or fastballs, and let the rest fall where it may -- just, hopefully, within the playing field.
Going with the flow is fine and dandy, but when it comes to pitching there's another philosophy concerning liquidity LMB teams are paying attention to: the trickle-down effect.
"I've talked with people here who have seen this league for 40 years, and they have told me that a 90 mph fastball was really uncommon 10 years ago," said Octavio Hernández, an analyst for the Diablos Rojos del México. "You are seeing on a regular basis -- not relief pitchers, just starting pitchers -- throwing 90, 91, 92 mph and getting drilled because it's not only about velocity, it's about location and spin rate and extension."
When discussing the league's offensive explosion, Hernández wondered how much impact could be credited to hitters coming from progressive organizations to Mexico and spreading the good word about launch angles and uppercut swings and the like. It stands to reason a similar revolution could occur on the mound, if and/or when Russell or someone of similar standing introduces their unaware teammates to spin rate, tunneling, and whatever else he's picked up along his journey in the majors that could help them win the unfair battle.
Information and technology aren't the only ways LMB's pitching could improve in the coming years, either. Whereas a 95 mph fastball and an average or better slider used to be enough for a pitcher to lock down a spot in a big-league bullpen, the availability of velocity and quality breaking stuff in America could precipitate an influx of talent into LMB and other foreign leagues. Japan, for instance, is known to be seeking more power pitching. Mexico could follow suit. "In the near future, [I see] a clear possibility that the average fastball of this league is going to keep going up," Hernández said.
Those gains could help offset the advantages offered to hitters in LMB -- the ball, the air, and so on. Whether they ever prove enough to make LMB a pitching environment is to be determined. The future does offer hope to those who prefer their contests to be of the lower-scoring variety, however.
LMB is not the majors, and won't ever be confused as such. But it's a qualify professional league, and one that could continue to offer room for reinvention. For the individual, for the whole.
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