- Second baseman
- 28 years old
- Born in Cincinnati.
- Real name is Ryan. I will not tell you the story about how he got the name Scooter. Truly, we have all heard it enough.
- Better at baseball than you or any of your friends.
- Selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 16th round of the 2009 draft.
- Claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds before the 2017 season.
- Settled for a $9.8 million salary in arbitration.
- Will be eligible for free agency following the 2019 season.
Ken Gif-y Jr.
Last Friday, I wrote about Luis Castillo, and talked a lot about how we’re entering the 2019 season wondering the same things about him that we did a year ago. We’re still wondering if this is the year he develops into an ace, if the ultra-bright flashes of promise he’s shown in the past can manifest themselves over the course of a full season, and cement his presence at the top of Cincinnati’s rotation for years to come.
Oddly enough, we’re also entering Scooter Gennett’s 2019 with the same questions we had last year. In his case, however, it isn’t a question of whether or not he can break out — it’s a question of whether he can continue to produce in the same way he has over the past two seasons.
By this point, it’s well-documented that not much was expected from Gennett when he arrived in Cincinnati near the end of spring training in 2017. The Brewers squeezed him off their roster for a reason, seeing him as a non-threatening offensive player who’d produced just an 88 OPS+ over his two most recent seasons while playing not quite average defense at second base. Then he got to the Reds and, after homering 35 times in 1,637 career plate appearances with Milwaukee, homered 27 times in 497 PAs during his first year in Cincinnati. It was an incredibly unexpected power surge, and his 20.8 percent HR/FB mark suggested it was one that was unsustainable. The 2.2 fWAR and 123 wRC+ he posted in 2017 were nice, but there probably wasn’t a great chance that either would hold up for another year.
Fast forward another season, and now Gennett is coming off a season in which he was worth 4.5 fWAR, and posted a 125 wRC+. The power numbers declined just as many assumed they would, his ISO dropping from .236 to .180. But even without that power, he proved to be a dangerous middle of the order weapon on offense. He raised his batting average to the point where he was in contention for the battling title for most of the season, and finished with a pretty robust line of .310/.357/.490. That, combined with his best defensive season in years, allowed him to post the highest wins above replacement figure on the entire team for the 2018 season.
So, if Gennett has essentially doubled his value for two straight seasons, why are there still questions about whether he will continue to be valuable to the team in 2019? Well, for as much as the surface-level numbers say Gennett is one of the better hitters in the National League over the last two seasons, the underlying peripherals tend not to tell the same story. Gennett’s exit velocity placed him in just the 21st percentile of all major league hitters, his hard hit percentage was in the 25th percentile, and his xwOBA was in the 37th percentile.
In 2017, the difference between his actual slugging percentage and his expected slugging percentage was the fourth-highest in baseball, according to Statcast. In 2018, it was the ninth-highest. For two years, the results produced by the balls he puts in play have been far greater than what hitters with similar contact data tend to experience. Three seasons ago, Gennett had an average exit velocity of 86.7 miles per hour, a 7 percent walk rate, and a wRC+ of 92. Last season, he had an exit velocity of 86.7 miles per hour, a 6.6 percent walk rate, and a wRC+ of 125. Obviously, those are just two stats out of many one can turn to to qualify a hitter’s season, but the basic story they tell is that Gennett his the ball precisely as hard now as he did before he joined the Reds, walks roughly as often, and has somehow gone from a below-average hitter to one of baseball’s best.
Is that transformation here to stay? I don’t think we’re ready to answer that yet, and apparently, the Reds aren’t either. As has recently been discussed, Gennett has been open about wanting a contract extension that would keep him with his hometown team beyond 2019, when his current deal expires. Cincinnati allegedly hasn’t responded with an offer, a clear indication that they’re not ready to buy into Gennett’s longterm viability just yet. The Reds haven’t traded him, either, even when doing so would open a spot in the lineup for the organization’s top prospect, which could be taken to mean they haven’t gotten any offers for him, but could also mean the team still sees Gennett as someone who can be an important contributor in the coming season.
Gennett’s luck might run out in 2019. This might be the year that his numbers finally begin to match up with the peripherals, and that someone who has comfortably fit in as a middle of the order hitter over the last two seasons may fall near the bottom of a lineup that projects as one of the most potent in the National League. His defensive shortcomings could resurface, his walk rate could remain frighteningly stagnant, and he might regress quickly.
On the other hand, maybe this is just who Gennett is. Maybe he’s one of those players who manage to routinely outperform his talent level. Maybe he’ll put together another .300 batting average with 25 homers, and make a real compelling case to anyone in search of a second baseman in next year’s free agency period. Maybe Gennett’s been showing us his true self all along, just waiting for us to believe him.