When you think about the current iteration of the Cincinnati Reds, you think of Joey Votto. You think of Billy Hamilton’s speed and defense, Zack Cozart’s breakout, donkey, and free agency, and Scooter Gennett’s 4-dinger game. Adam Duvall’s name comes to mind, what with the unexpected All Star appearance and mammoth first halves of seasons. Eugenio Suarez, similarly, picked up a larger fan following thanks to a breakout 2017, and Tucker Barnhart just signed a contract extension and took home a Gold Glove for excellent defense at catcher.
Hell, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winker are names that most will rattle off, seeing as they’re touted prospects we hope can change the course of the franchise. Prospects of a similar caliber to what Devin Mesoraco once was, another former All Star who somehow is already entering the final season of the contract he signed after his big breakout year.
That’s now ten names we’ve sifted through, ten position players who shouldered the bulk of the load in 2017 and/or who will be counted on tremendously in 2018, barring a major shake-up. Ten names, none of which is Scott Schebler, who is apparently fresh off the single most anonymous 30 homer season in Cincinnati Reds history.
The 30 dingers aside, being overlooked is a common theme in Schebler’s baseball career. He wasn’t drafted out of high school, and didn’t attend a big-name baseball university. He was later plucked out of an Iowa community college by the Los Angeles Dodgers, albeit not until the 26th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. From there he was thrust into one of the more OF rich systems in recent memory, sitting somewhere around 9th on the pecking order of potential big leaguers for a franchise that had more lefty-swingers who could play there than they knew what to do with, only to be traded as a secondary piece to the Reds in the three-team Todd Frazier deal.
Even then, Schebler was somewhat stuck, blocked in corner spots by both Jay Bruce and Duvall, and when he finally had the chance to play most everyday this season, his best tool - towering dinger power - managed to get overshadowed by the most dingerriffic league-wide season in the history of the game.
There are parts of Schebler’s game that look ho-hum to almost every type of baseball fan. His .233 batting average and mere 67 ribbies look rather pedestrian on the traditional stat scale. His rough .307 OBP last year did enough to derail his otherwise solid power numbers, sinking his season OPS+ to 103, or just a hair over a league-average output. Pair all of that with a below-average arm and negative defensive metrics, and the argument for Schebler being any higher than the 10th or 11th most intriguing player on Cincinnati’s roster at the moment does appear to carry solid weight, especially given that he’s already 27 years old.
There are, however, a couple of aspects to Schebler’s game that suggest that maybe, just maybe, we could see a lot more out of next season.
The easy one to begin with was the shoulder injury he suffered while diving for a ball against the Atlanta Braves on June 3rd. He sat out a pair of games, got some treatment and some all-important anti-inflammatory injections, and seemingly jumped right back into crushing the ball by going 10 for 29 with a pair of homers over his next eight games. However, as Schebler told The Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans after finally landing on the 10-day DL at the end of July, it’s how the shoulder felt after he was weaned from those anti-inflammatories that became the larger issue. Playing through pain and with nothing to numb him to it, his production completely cratered, and after he finished the month of July on a horrid 2 for 45 (.051/.178/.154) skid, he finally spoke up about the shoulder issue and hit the DL for nearly three weeks.
And, after returning, he looked similar to the Schebler who’d posted an .858 OPS in 51 games prior to the June 3rd injury, posting an .831 OPS over the season’s final 40 contests. That obviously leads you to wonder what his full-season output would’ve looked like with either better health or by not trying to bull through pain to the detriment of both player and team.
A more underrated aspect of Schebler’s 2017 season can be found in his splits. The natural surface reaction to seeing 30 dingers from a player who plays his home games in GABP is that it had to be a product of so many PAs in a tiny stadium, but in Schebler’s case that’s hardly the truth. He popped 13 of them while wearing his home whites, but 17 came away from home last year, and his underlying numbers show he was hardly just a product of a small home park. In fact, he pummeled the ball all over opposing parks, hitting .263/.315/.570 in 273 road PAs, his .283 BABIP even suggesting it wasn’t merely a product of good luck. At home, though, he hit just .198/.298/.387 with an unsustainably low .207 BABIP in 258 PAs.
Nobody should realistically expect a player with Schebler’s kind of power to post just a .686 OPS in games in GABP. In fact, in his smaller 2016 sample, his home/road splits did reflect the assumption that he was a product of the small home park, his .890 OPS at home dwarfing his .636 road OPS. However, in showing that it’s possible to produce effectively outside of GABP in 2017 while predictably being good there the year before, it’s not too out of line to think regression will positively impact his home splits in 2018 more than it will sink his road splits - and that would make for an incredible rise in his overall numbers.
Beyond that, Schebler’s improvement against LHP was an unsuspected surprise in 2017. After struggling to just a .608 OPS against lefties in 2016, he posted a .782 OPS against them in 2017, his .493 slugging percentage against them actually higher than his .481 mark against RHP. It’d be wonderful if that proved to be real, as well.
We know generally what Scott Schebler can be expected to provide the Reds. He’s got great raw power, walks and strikes out at nearly league-average rates, and moves with enough speed and athleticism that he’s consistently scored as an above-average baserunner. He pulls the ball more than most in the game, and as a lefty who also hits balls out of the park at an above-average rate, that means he’s never destined to be a high-BABIP kind of player.
What we don’t know, yet, is whether the incremental improvements we saw in some aspects of his profile can manage to dovetail with consistently better health and, perhaps, a bit better luck. While Schebler only owns a career .273 BABIP, his .248 mark in 2017 both drags that number down and was significantly lower than where it’s been at any and all levels of his professional career, and is something early projections suggest was far too low to sustain. We also don’t know whether the speed that had him on track teams in his past, has him graded as a solid baserunner, and that is obvious enough to have him get starts in CF rather often can begin to translate into improved overall defense.
It’s not out of the realm of expectations to suggest that there is a legitimate chance all - or most - of those question marks trend in the right direction for Schebler as he enters his prime age-27 season in 2018. If they do so in any significant fashion, that’s the making of a 3-4 WAR player for the Reds next year, which might finally be what it takes for us to all take notice of his ability.