Scooter Gennett started off his 2016 season on fire. He had an .877 OPS through the end of April, and he had solidified his potential hold on the second base job. At the very least, he had played well enough to guarantee that he would have a shot at keeping his position once Orlando Arcia forced Jonathan Villar off of shortstop. And, it’s worth pointing out, that did in fact happen, as Villar moved to third base instead of second once Arcia made his debut.
But Gennett faded into the background as the season went on. Villar outshot any reasonable expectations, Ryan Braun bounced back to some semblance of his former self, and Chris Carter ended up tied for the National League lead in home runs. Gennett instead became a consistent presence in the everyday lineup, but he didn’t stand out in the same way that some of the team’s other players did.
However, he finished the season with 2.0 WARP, which means he was a league-average player this year. For a 26-year-old who had declined to the point of being below-replacement-level last season, that is quite a rebound. It is also an encouraging sign for the Brewers, as they will be hoping that Gennett can justify a place on the big league roster in years to come even if they have likely given up on him being a star at any point.
The most interesting part of Gennett’s season, though, was how his performance broke down. While he was making his way up the prospect ladder, BP’s prospect staff constantly noted (in 2011, 2012, and 2013) that his bat was his carrying tool and his glove was average at best. That scouting report tended to be accurate through his first few seasons, as he never posted a positive FRAA and the value of his season overall was dependent on whether he hit.
But this season, he was a league-average player despite being just a league-average hitter, which means his defense was good enough to keep him above water overall. That isn’t an outcome I would have foreseen before the season started; instead, I would have assumed that for Gennett to be worth two wins, he would have had to hit much better than he actually did. In reality, his 2.02 WARP ranked 20th in MLB among all second baseman, but his .262 TAv was just 23rd in that same category.
This does create some level of worry, though. Defensive metrics are more volatile on a year-to-year basis, so outliers should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism—especially when they don’t line up with previous scouting reports. This is especially true given that defense peaks much earlier in a player’s career, so this sort of unexpected bump in defensive performance is surprising. The fact that Gennett would be a top-ten defensive second baseman in the league flies directly in the face of what we thought we knew coming into the season.
It is, of course, possible that Gennett has just improved his defense and become a competent big-league player. The idea that someone could settle into a major league role and perhaps improve his understanding of positioning and therefore become a better defender is entirely within the realm of possibility. However, the idea that Scooter Gennett—who had never before posted a positive FRAA—could be a league-average player on the strength of his glove rather than his bat would have seemed ridiculous before the season, and we should remember that through the offseason.
There is a temptation to try and explain away this discrepancy by saying that there was always a possibility Gennett would be a viable major leaguer, and that this is sustainable because his offense should bump up next year even if his defense drops down. That type of logic, however, is easily exploitable; psychological links aside, a player’s offense and defense occur in two separate planes and do not rise and fall in concert. If we think Gennett is a below-average defender—which he always has been—and if we think Gennett has not proven able to hit enough to make up for his glove—which is the case so far in his career—then we should evaluate him accordingly.
His career .263 TAv (in 1,637 plate appearances) speaks to his true talent level with his bat, and his defensive history speaks to his true talent level with his glove. He has absolutely earned the right to start at second base going into next season (barring an unforeseen upgrade at third base that pushes Villar across the diamond), but expecting that the Brewers have a league-average second baseman they can slot into their lineup every day is a mistake.