In the classic film Good Will Hunting, the title character and his friends get into a fight on a basketball court with another group of young men. Will slugs his adversary in the face, vengeance for the way this individual treated Will when they were both in elementary school.
The police come, and Will ill-advisedly strikes a cop.
Turns out, this wasn’t the first time Will has been in trouble with the law, but he has always found a way out of trouble in the past. Not so this time. The judge orders prison time.
But shortly after, an esteemed professor works out a deal with the judge to allow Will to go free. Why? Because even though Will has demons that have contributed to many bad choices, he also has virtues and strengths, at least one of which is very important to this professor: Will can do math that literally no one else can.
Thus, Will must work with this professor and see a psychiatrist to stave off a prison sentence. His unmatched ability to do math trumps his assault of a police officer and checkered history. His strengths outweigh his weaknesses, at least in this instance.
In baseball, we typically aren’t comparing a player’s personal shortcomings against the positives they bring to the team. But most players do have playing vices and virtues.
For example, Joey Votto might be the best hitter on the planet. Outside of one awful season, he has been above-average defensively. But have you seen him run the bases? Not so speedy. However, Votto is so good at hitting and defense that we don’t mind his plodding from base to base.
A player’s strengths must outweigh their weaknesses for them to be useful. The better he is at one aspect, the easier it is to overlook his flaws.
Scooter Gennett is one of those players with clear strengths and weaknesses. He has a slightly above average wRC+ (105) for his career, posting an impressive 124 wRC+ in 2017. Last season seemed like an outlier compared to past years, but in 2018, Gennett has looked like the same guy offensively, batting .318/.356/.503 with six homeruns.
The underlying numbers are quite promising as well. First, Gennett is laying off pitches outside the zone better than he ever has. For his career, Gennett has swung at 36.6% of pitches outside the zone. This season, that number has dipped to 28.8%, which would be the first mark under 30% of his career if he can sustain it.
The change in approach, which began in 2017, has thus far led to fewer swings and misses and strikeouts. Gennett has cut down on strikeouts by roughly 5% from last year, and his BB% remains above his career average. His plate discipline is arguably the best it has ever been.
And a better approach doesn’t just lead to better walk and strikeout numbers, it’s often the catalyst to better contact. Gennett is hitting the ball with much more authority than years past. During his breakout 2017, he had a 34.4% Hard%, which measures how often players hit the ball hard. That’s right around league average but a big step up for Gennett from earlier years. This season, that number has skyrocketed to 42.3%, the fourth highest among second basemen in all of baseball.
We can expect his batting average to come down because he has an elevated BABIP of .362, but Gennett has always hit for a high BABIP in the past (.329 career mark), so it won’t come down as much as you might think. And he has the third highest line drive percentage in the National League among his second-base brethren, something we would expect from someone with a high batting average. It shouldn’t shock anyone to see him match his 2017 BABIP of .339.
The numbers suggest that he will continue to be a good offensive player.
But, is he good enough to offset the defense he plays? Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is one of the best all-encompassing defensive stats we have. It attempts to place a “run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof)”.
Among qualified second basemen, Gennett has the worst UZR in baseball. According to Fangraphs, he’s on pace to rate somewhere between “poor” and “awful.” Gennett is playing about as bad on defense as a middle infielder will play.
Last year, his poor defense diminished his overall value significantly. He was the second best hitter among NL second basemen with at least 450 plate appearances; he was 19th out of 20 in UZR. While hitting 24% better than the average player, he accumulated only 2.3 fWAR, roughly that of an average player.
What does this mean for Gennett’s future in the big leagues and with the Reds? First, Gennett’s offense is probably good enough for him to be a starting second basemen, even with the terrible defense. There’s a good chance he’s a 1.5-2.5 WAR player over the next few seasons, and that’s a starter for most teams.
But, unless vertigo or some other injury knocks him off course, Nick Senzel will beat down the door to the major leagues. The 22-year-old needs a place to play, and second base seems like the most likely landing spot.
Senzel is the antithesis of Gennett’s unbalanced game. He is a plus runner who defends well; he has above-average raw power and an exceptional hit tool. Senzel does everything well, which makes his floor very high and margin for error quite large.
While he may not be an immediate offensive upgrade, Senzel would certainly provide more value on defense and the bases than Gennett. It’s easy to see how Senzel could exceed Gennett’s overall production as soon as he gets regular playing time.
That leaves the Reds in a difficult spot with Gennett. He’s useful, probably a low-end starter but at least a good part-time player. He’s signed through next season. Do they try shifting Suarez back to shortstop to make room for Senzel and Gennett? The Reds don’t appear to have any interest in that right now. Will Gennett accept a role as a part-time player?
Or maybe Gennett has hit his way into some value on the trade market. It’s tough to say how other teams may evaluate him, but there’s enough risk to Gennett that I doubt the Reds get a major haul for him.
Scooter Gennett has glaring strengths and weaknesses. In 2017 and so far this season, his good has outweighed his bad. However, while he adds value to the current team, he is also blocking the Reds best hitting prospect since Jay Bruce. Whether the value Gennett adds is enough for the Reds to find a spot for him in 2019 is yet to be seen.