Imagine waking up each morning assured of striking out on the job.
Kyle Russell lives with such a predicament and doesn’t seem to mind. The Chattanooga Lookouts right fielder has averaged more than one strikeout a game since his days at the University of Texas, but he is productive when he connects and is among the top power prospects in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
“The more you accept it, the better you’re going to be,” Russell said. “Do I try to strike out? No. Not at all. It just comes with the territory, and I’m OK with it. I try to get the ball in play with two strikes, but it doesn’t work out as much as I want it to.”
The 24-year-old left-handed hitter hit Chattanooga’s first home run this season, a two-run shot to right field in Saturday’s 12-4 victory over Tennessee, but he also struck out six times in the first five-game series, or 1.2 per game. Russell struck out 113 times in 76 games with the Lookouts last season, an average of 1.5 a game.
Russell said he doesn’t keep up with his strikeouts, and Lookouts hitting coach Franklin Stubbs doesn’t plan to harp on them.
“He’s going to strike out,” Stubbs said. “When you’re a power hitter and you hit the ball out of the ballpark, you have to give something to get something. My main thing is if you get a good pitch, put a good swing on it and put it in play and we’ll see what happens.”
Russell has provided his share of stellar swings.
The 6-foot-5, 195-pounder from Magnolia, Texas, played three seasons for the Longhorns before leaving as the program’s all-time home run leader with 57. He led the NCAA with 28 homers in 2007 and in ’08 hit .296 with 19 homers and drove in 56 runs in 57 games.
The Dodgers selected Russell in the third round of the ’08 draft.
Two years ago, in his first full professional season, Russell hit .272 with 39 doubles, 26 homers and 102 RBIs in 133 games with Single-A Great Lakes. He was named co-MVP of the Midwest League, sharing the honor with Dee Gordon, who was Chattanooga’s shortstop last season.
“When he’s at his best, he’s really using the middle of the field,” Stubbs said. “He’s not what I would call a dead-pull hitter, because he drives the ball all over the ballpark. Not that he can’t pull the ball, but when he’s in a groove, it’s pretty much middle-of-the-field, gap-to-gap action.”
Stubbs was the hitting coach last year at high Single-A Inland Empire, where Russell sizzled last spring with a .354 average and had 53 RBIs in 53 games before a June 7 promotion to Chattanooga. His average sank to .245 with the Lookouts, with 10 homers and 28 RBIs.
Through five games this season, Russell is hitting just .235, but his four hits include the homer and two doubles.
“We just want him to try to make sure he has a quality at-bat every time and to give away less at-bats per game,” Stubbs said. “He gave an at-bat away in the first game and I told him those are the at-bats we can’t have. Don’t go up there and swing without really seeing the ball.
“If a guy gives away one at-bat per game, that’s 140 at-bats over the course of a season. Every at-bat counts, whether it’s the first or the fifth, so make it like it’s your last at-bat.”
Russell has yet to play a complete Double-A season and admits he is still getting used to pitchers throwing 95 mph almost every night and having the ability to mix more pitches at different points in the count. He feels more comfortable this year and realizes he must become more consistent through the strike zone.
And if striking out continues, so be it.
“I’ve lived with it my whole life,” Russell said. “I know what my role is in playing baseball, and so I’m going to continue doing it. It got me here to Double-A, and hopefully it will get me to the major leagues.”