Kyle Russell: College Baseball's Top Home Run Hitter
After setting the Cape Cod League record for the most strikeouts by a batter last summer with 64 in 126 at-bats, University of Texas outfielder Kyle Russell is leading the country in home runs and has become one of the favorites to capture Player of the Year honors.
Russell broke the single-season school record earlier this month when he went yard for the 21st time (video). He has slugged three more since then and now has 24 HR with seven regular season games, the Big 12 Tournament, and the NCAA playoffs still to play.
A 2005 graduate of Tomball High School (TX), Russell is part of a sophomore class at Texas (37-12 overall, 17-4 in the Big 12 Conference) that includes left fielder Jordan Danks (the brother of Chicago White Sox lefthander John), catcher Preston Clark, and third baseman Bradley Suttle. Russell, who will turn 21 on June 27, and Suttle are both eligible to be selected in the amateur draft in June. [Correction: Clark is also eligible for this year's draft.]
Ranked as the 19th best college prospect by Baseball America (premium content), Russell is currently projected to go in the supplemental round (#31-64). ESPN's Keith Law lists him 45th overall (Insider subscription).
I watched Russell play three games in early February when Texas visited Long Beach State. The Dirtbags took two out of three in a series in which each contest was decided by one run. Russell, who batted seventh every game, went 5-for-10 with two homers, four walks, and one strikeout while scoring and knocking in four runs.
Sitting next to me, my brother Tom said Russell's body type reminded him of Von Hayes. Sure enough, Russell and Hayes are both 6-5, 185-pound left-handed-hitting outfielders. The latter was a multi-talented player who enjoyed a 12-year career (1981-1992) in the big leagues. Hayes was a faster runner but didn't possess quite as much power. I timed Kyle from home to first in 4.30 on a groundout to third when he let up ever so slightly on his last step or two. He is no better than a 4.20-4.25 to first, which would grade as a major league average 50 for a LHB on the 20-80 scouting scale.
The fact that Russell plays right and the athletic Danks left tells you something about the former's defense. Kyle looked comfortable in right field and exhibited a strong and accurate left arm on a throw to third base after running to his right to track down a ball in the gap. I believe his glove and arm are good enough to handle RF in the majors.
Russell cranked two home runs in the opening game of the series. The first was a towering drive over the 400 sign in straightaway center. The second was an opposite-field shot that cleared the wall 387 feet away from home plate. Jacking balls out of Blair Field is far from a common occurrence. Right field points in the direction of the ocean and any breeze adds to the difficulty of launching long drives out of the park.
I didn't see Russell turn on any pitches that weekend, but his home runs have actually been evenly distributed to all fields this year. He has what scouts would call "pole-to-pole" power. According to play-by-play data attached to each box score, Russell's four baggers have been clubbed as follows:
LFL LF LCF CF RCF RF RFL
2 3 4 4 4 4 3
In an email interview, I asked Russell if there was a reason why he has hit so many home runs to center and left fields. "I learned at a young age to hit a ball on the outside part of the plate to left-center field and to right field when it's on the inner half of the plate."
Russell's first college home run, in fact, was hit to left field. In just his second at-bat as a Longhorn, he slugged a pinch-hit, two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to give Texas a 5-4 victory over Rice at the Houston College Classic.
Last year, Russell hit nine of his 10 HR in the team's first 40 games. A late-season slump didn't keep him from being named as a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball (first team) and Baseball America (second team). However, his cold streak followed him to the Cape when he endured more adversity than ever, hitting just .206 and whiffing in more than 50% of his at-bats for the Cotuit Kettleers.
Nonetheless, Russell views the Cape as a valuable experience. "The Cape Cod was a great league for me to mature not only as a baseball player who had a tough time, but to mature as a person as well."
To Russell's credit, he has bounced back from a dreadful summer and now leads the nation in HR, SLG, and TB, while ranking third in RBI and fifth in OPS.
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB HP SO GDP SB CS AVG OBP SLG
2007 So. 47 173 54 63 10 4 24 63 32 5 52 0 8 3 .364 .465 .884
2006 Fr. 55 163 35 45 8 3 10 42 17 8 55 0 8 2 .276 .365 .546
Russell is 46-for-115 (.400) with 19 HR vs. RHP and 17-for-58 (.293) with 5 HR vs. LHP. He has slugged 11 homers in 25 games at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, 3 HR in 8 games at The Dell Diamond, and 10 HR in 16 road games. Kyle is one of only 32 players since 1975 to hit a home run over the 20-foot wall in center field at Disch-Falk Field.
Taking a page from Bryan Smith, I checked Russell's logs on Friday nights against what normally constitutes the opposition's #1 starting pitcher. Kyle is 18-for-47 on Fridays, including 13-for-32 with 7 HR, 3 BB, 2 HBP, and 11 SO vs. the starter. He has faced pre-season All-Americans Chris Ashman of Oral Roberts (0-0 w/ BB and HBP) and Tony Watson of Nebraska (0-4 w/ 2 SO), plus sophomore sensation Brian Matusz of University of San Diego (0-2 w/ HBP and SO), and Cape Cod stars Nolan Gallagher of Stanford (2-3 w/ 2 HR and SO) and Vance Worley of Long Beach State (2-3 w/ HR and SO).
Russell considers Watson to be the toughest pitcher he has faced this year. "He didn't overpower you with his velocity, but he was so effective with hitting his spots with three great pitches: fastball, slider, and changeup."
On the heels of last Tuesday's game in which he hit for the cycle against UT Pan American, Russell went 1-for-10 over the past weekend against Oklahoma State while striking out seven times. How Kyle finishes the season may well determine where he is drafted and how big of a signing bonus he is offered.
At the plate, Russell holds his hands high with a slightly open stance and medium flex at the knees. A big league talent evaluator who sat directly in front of me during one of the games vs. Long Beach State likes Russell but believes "his bat drags a bit," a polite way of saying that he has an "aluminum bat swing."
Make no mistake about it, Russell has a powerful stroke, but his swing is not without its holes. Kyle's high strikeout rate and poor showing in the Cape Cod League last summer make one wonder how he will perform with a wood rather than aluminum bat once he turns pro. When asked, Russell told me, "I have confidence in myself to know that I can hit with a wooden bat and that is all I need."
I liked Russell when I saw him play but am of the opinion that he would be somewhat of a gamble in the first round although I am sure there is an organization out there that will draft him no later than the sandwich round because of his power and upside [editor's note: wording revised]. His tall, lanky frame could easily support another 20 pounds of muscle, adding to his longer-term potential.
Russell's stock could soar if he went back to the Cape this summer and proved to the skeptics that he can indeed hit with a wood bat. Then again, he could go there and flop. It's a difficult decision for someone who hasn't even turned 21 yet.
Which direction is Russell leaning? "I'm not really focused on the draft right now. All I want to do is get through my finals and try to make it back to Omaha." Fair enough.
Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Baseball.