When covering a player’s potential role, it is tempting to see some type of “determinism,” or inevitability, about that role. If a player has some tools and traits that are likely to play into a part time or bench role, it may be difficult for fans and analysts to see that player in any other light. Brewers starting second baseman Scooter Gennett has faced this type of skepticism from the word “Go!,” from myself included; I followed the conventional wisdom, tools, and approach (including previous performance against left-handed pitching) to argue in favor of Gennett’s role as a platoon second baseman.
Yet, even if Gennett may eventually become a platoon second baseman, or even was previously a platoon second baseman, it is important to understand the value of each and every contrarian season. Gennett now has 390 career games, including 324 starts, and counting, over parts of four seasons. This is not the profile of a platoon second baseman who will fight for a big league role. Gennett has also served as a member of an extremely successful platoon for the 2014 Brewers (on the offensive side, anyway), weathered injuries and a minor league demotion in 2015, and survived a front office regime change. It is important to look at Gennett’s approach in 2016, because an entirely new question bubbles beneath the surface: can Gennett’s improvements in 2016 lead to a continued starting role for the Brewers? 2016 is now another year in Gennett’s strange journey of delaying MLB inevitability.
Some may scoff at this question as unnecessary or trivial, especially if one believes that the Brewers will take several years to rebuild. One may emphasize that the role of starting second baseman for a rebuilding club is not necessarily a crucial organizational decision. I disagree vehemently with both of these arguments. Rebuilding is about aligning current roster assets for maximal future value; if Gennett can continue his role as a starting second baseman, he either (1) hastens the contending years by clarifying the potential performance of a club controlled contract, (2) improves the industry perception of his trade value to another contender, and/or (3) extends his career outlook to potentially add veteran presence to a future Brewers contender (among other potential outcomes). I don’t believe any of these outcomes are insignificant, either for Gennett’s own career potential (especially in terms of salary) or for the Brewers as an organization.
While looking for hints at Gennett’s improvement in his statistics and approach, one thing is certain: selectivity is the true name of the game. This has been covered by BPMilwaukee, and is emerging as one of the clear and intriguing storylines of the year; indeed, one of the leaders of the patient and selective Brewers is in fact Gennett. According to Brooks Baseball data, Gennett’s performance against secondary pitches has shifted, with the curveball now serving as his favored off-speed offering (as opposed to the slider, which Gennett smoked for a .340 AVG and .491 SLG in 2015). This is an interesting aspect of Gennett’s approach, but the clear victory for the second baseman is in his approach to fastballs, sinkers, and cutters.
What is especially fascinating about Gennett’s approach against hard pitches is that he has not necessarily improved in every single area. Some of his approach and outcomes remain similar, in terms of groundballs, line drives, and flyballs, for instance. The biggest shift, as many have noted, is that Gennett is swinging less, and this has especially improved his fastball approach. Using Brooks Baseball data, here is the hard pitch profile for Gennett in 2016:
|Gennett Fastballs / Sinkers / Cutters||2015||2016|
|Total||533 / 287 / 56||419 / 205 / 98|
|Ball%||29 / 33 / 23||31.5 / 42 / 35|
|Strike %||25 / 17 / 25||26 / 17 / 29|
|Swing %||52 / 52 / 59||51 / 48 / 43|
|Whiff %||7.5 / 4 / 7||9 / 8 / 8|
|GB %||7.5 / 12 / 14||6 / 15 / 7|
|LD||5 / 8 / 4||6 / 7 / 3|
|FB||4 / 5 / 4||5 / 4 / 3|
|BB||5 / 1 / 0||12 / 4 / 4|
|SLG||.385 / .514 / .177||.573 / .754 / .000|
|ISO||.131 / .203 / .059||.219 / .344 / .000|
The combination of selectivity and power is difficult to ignore. This is where discusssing plate discipline leaps from evidence to voodoo, but it simply appears that by swinging less, Gennett is actually reaching his pitch more frequently. By his pitch, I mean a pitch that Gennett can drive for power. It is difficult to judge this profile for sustainability in the sense that Gennett still hits sinkers for groundballs, has not significantly changed his outlook on batted balls in play (in terms of percentage), and has not necessarily mitigated any swing and miss tendencies. However, what jumps off the page is the fact that Gennett is swinging less frequently, coaxing more balls from pitchers (and therefore more walks), and subsequently driving the ball for significantly more power.
This transition in approach carries over to left handed pitchers, which is Gennett’s notorious area of weakness. In fact, Gennett’s new ability to select, and therefore dominate, the fastball is driving the majority of his success against lefties. Yet, once again, even where Gennett is failing to improve batted ball outcomes versus lefties, his selectivity is allowing him to reach base:
|Gennett FB / SI / CT vs. LHP||2015||2016|
|Total||69 / 17 / 2||113 / 31 / 25|
|Ball%||29 / 18 / 0||29 / 45 / 52|
|Strike%||29 / 24 / 50||30 / 16 / 20|
|Swing%||55 / 53 / 100||50 / 42 / 32|
|Whiff%||13 / 0 / 50||10 / 3 / 12|
|GB%||13 / 29 / 50||4 / 13 / 8|
|LD%||3 / 0 / 0||6 / 3 / 4|
|FB%||4 / 0 / 0||4 / 0 / 0|
|BB total||0 / 0 / 0||2 / 2 / 2|
|SLG||.263 / .000 / .000||1.238 / .143 / .000|
|ISO||.105 / .000 / .000||.667 / .000 / .000|
What is encouraging about this development is that it is not some across the board, astronomical improvement. There are areas where Gennett still needs to develop his approach, which is less damning now that one can clearly see that he is developing his approach against big league competition. If Gennett can sustain this adjustment, one might reasonably ask, what is the next adjustment? Since these adjustments are twofold, Gennett also has several ways to redefine his approach going forward. If the slugging dries up somewhat, Gennett can use his selectivity to fight his way on base; if that dries up, perhaps his selectivity will help him hit his way aboard. It would not be surprising to see a 2017 batting line that looks much different from this 2016 line, as Gennett can use this base to morph once again.
Of course, manager Craig Counsell has also praised Gennett’s defensive adjustments as well, and it is worth investigating whether or how the Brewers’ current shifting attitudes and practices are also impacting his glove. Not only has the 26 year old second baseman made strides to correct some of his weaknesses at the plate, but he has also improved his defensive performance (his 2016 FRAA of 0.2 is easily the best of his career). This shores up the other aspect of Gennett’s role: now, when the bat slumps, there may be another tool to carry Gennett in the field. As a result, one might argue that at the moment, Gennett has completely shifted his future value from that popular “platoon second baseman” judgment to a “starting second baseman” option.
The value in this role change is extreme, even if Gennett is not a star. First and foremost, if Gennett sticks as a starter, the Brewers can slowly and carefully develop their now robust second base pipeline of prospects without the big league club wanting for production. Secondly, when Orlando Arcia arrives, should Jonathan Villar move to third base, the club’s infield improves even further if they can rely on Gennett to produce in a regular role. This helps the club to solidify a certain level of production while also advancing prospects that have the tools to improve the club (such as Arcia’s elite shortstop defense). By presenting fewer questions for the 2017 Brewers, Gennett shows that a quiet aspect of rebuilding an MLB club can also manifest in organizational depth veterans redefining or solidifying their MLB roles. If the 2017 Brewers are a better club because they can rely on Gennett to perform, that is a clear victory for the organization and Gennett.