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Scooter Gennett, the Unheralded

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Gennett had a consensus ranking of 210 on FantasyPros heading into 2018. He is currently the No. 28 overall player in fantasy baseball.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not like “small” guys can’t succeed in baseball. Jose Altuve is 5-6, 165. Mookie Betts is 5-9, 180. Each has been so dominant that their stature is rarely mentioned anymore. But there was a time when Altuve’s height was mentioned frequently. And I think some questioned Betts and his ability to hit for power consistently. As far as I can tell, those fears are ancient history.

I wonder if we were prejudiced against the 5-10, 185 behemoth that is Scooter Gennett heading into 2018. He had certainly offered production already, and he was heading into his second year with the Great American “Small Park” as his home digs. And it seems that most people looked right past him, as Gennett had a consensus ranking of 210 on FantasyPros during draft season. Here at Fake Teams were were no different. Gennett was buried in our keystone rankings, all the way down at No. 20 (one spot behind Jason Kipnis, yikes). Yours truly and Punk had him the highest, at No. 18 among second basemen. But that isn’t cause for celebration given how Gennett has performed. Most touts probably expected a .270 average and about 20 bombs—or a useful middle infield type. Instead, Gennett has far exceeded expectations for the second year running. Maybe it is time we all paid better attention?

The Production

Gennett popped 27 home runs in 2017, slashing .295/.342/.531 during his first year with the Reds. In 2018, Gennett has exacted his revenge on those of us who overlooked him. He is currently slashing .316/.365/.499 and is up to 23 home runs. That’ll do, especially for someone who was an afterthought on draft day. Here are a few more takes, just for reference:

Gennett is the No. 4 second baseman in the fake game, behind only Jose Ramirez, Javier Baez, and Whit Merrifield. He ranks ahead of Matt Carpenter, Ozzie Albies, teammate Jose Peraza, Jose Altuve, Anthony Rizzo—and any other second base name you’d like to conjure up.

Only Freddie Freeman (185), Nick Markakis (182), J.D. Martinez (181), and Whit Merrifield (181) have more hits than Gennett (178). Naturally, Gennett ranks fourth in batting average among qualified MLB hitters—only Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Christian Yelich are better. Gennett and Mike Trout are tied at fourth, with a .316 average. Gennett is a candidate to be traded away from the rebuilding Reds this offseason, but he is currently in a war with Yelich for the NL batting title.

Among qualified second basemen, Gennett ranks fourth in runs (85), second in home runs (23), third in RBIs (92), first in batting average (.316), and 18th in stolen bases (4). That’s a heck of a four-category contributor given his draft day cost and poor team context (the Reds are currently 66-89 and are middling in runs scored at 17th this year).

Heading into 2019, we have to consider Gennett a safe commodity...right? I don’t think he’s someone I want to overlook. For now I want to check out his batted ball profile and plate discipline. Let’s see what we can discern about his last two years, which have been fantasy-friendly.

Batted Ball Profile

There’s an easy answer for more power, I think. Gennett has a career 36.6% pull rate, but during his two-year stint with the Reds he is pulling the ball more than ever. In 2017 his rate leapt all the way up to 42.4%, despite a previous high of only 37.5%. At the time of this writing on September 22, 2018, Gennett is sitting pretty at an even 40.0%.

Coinciding with the higher pull rate is more hard contact. If you exclude Gennett’s smallest sample (his 2013 rookie season) he is also making the most hard contact of his career. His career average is 31.6%, which is an average mark. In 2017, he finished with a 34.4% hard contact rate, a shade below his 2013 rookie mark of 35.0%. And so far in 2018, Gennett is crushing his career marks with a whopping 39.5% hard contact rate. Among qualified players at the keystone, that mark ranks third. Only Rougned Odor (45.4%) and Jed Lowrie (40.1%) make more hard contact among second basemen.

Finally, as stated in the teaser, Gennett is the No. 28 overall player in fantasy baseball this year. That’s just wacky, given his minimal draft day cost.

Plate Discipline

2017 was pretty similar to 2016, and I’m looking at 2017 since it was Gennett’s first year with a new organization (the Reds). Gennett trimmed his swinging strike rate from 10.4% to 9.8%, which means he went from right around league average to a hair better than average. He also swung less than ever before during his first year as a Red, only 48.8% of the time. He posted the lowest chase rate of his career and swung way less in the zone. In fact, his 68.6% Z-Swing% was by far the lowest mark of his career. And that mark was still above the career average for 2017 (66.7%). Gennett’s career 72.2% Z-Swing% is well above average, signifying his ability to recognize (and swing at) pitches in the zone. Gennett’s contact rate in the zone used to be elite, hovering just above the 92.0% mark for the first three years of his career. However, recent emphasis on pulling the ball and selling out for power have made this mark drop to 85.9% in 2017 and 86.9% in 2018. Given that Gennett is still slightly above league average in contact over the last two years, I am okay with this tradeoff. The additional power is worth it, and Gennett’s 19.9% strikeout rate is actually the best it has been since 2016.

For what it’s worth, Gennett has also increased his walk rate to tolerable levels over the last three years. His first three seasons he was at 4.3%, 4.6%, and 3.1%. Since 2016, he walks this amount: 7.0%, 6.0%, and 6.8%. So not only is he pulling the ball more (and generating more power) he is also taking more walks.

As of 2018, Gennett is being more aggressive. In his second year as a Red, his chase rate is up to 38.0%, his highest mark since 2015—and about 8.0% higher than the current league average. Gennett is also making contact on those pitches out of the zone 75.3% of the time, his highest mark since his small 2013 rookie sample. For reference, the MLB average in O-Contact% in 2018 is 62.9%. Gennett has always been above average in this regard, but in 2018 he is smoking hot at over 13% better than league average.

In 2018, Gennett is back to swinging at everything in the zone (73.2%) and his overall swing rate is up to 52.8%, his highest mark since 2015. Only 19 players in the MLB swing more than Scooter Gennett. Of those 19 players, only Yangervis Solarte (8.5%), Eduardo Nunez (7.8%), and Dee Gordon (7.7%) have lower swinging strike rates than Gennett’s 9.4% mark. So a dude with a .229 average (Solarte) and two speed-first types are better. Got it.

Statcast and the Verdict

As a second baseman, Scooter Gennett looks like a building block for 2019. Of course, if he is traded we will have to consider his new home park and team context. But in general I am “in” on Gennett at this juncture. For giggles, Statcast backs up the growth Gennett has shown. Over the last two years, Gennett has drastically increased his Barrel %. In 2015 and 2016 he was at 1.0% and 3.9%, respectively. In 2017 he leapt up to 6.8%, which is a bit above league average. This year he is holding steady at 5.8%, which is just below the MLB average. Remember, Gennett is a second baseman, and we are including all MLB hitters—not just middle infielders.

Gennett has also gradually increased his launch angle every year since 2015. Here are his marks since that time (in degrees): 10.5, 11.7, 12.8, and 13.5. For reference, the average MLB launch angle in 2015 was 10.5 degrees (exactly the same as Gennett’s mark). In 2011, that mark rose to 11.5 degrees, and Gennett followed suit. So he is joining the fly ball revolution.

Gennett might rank only 188th in Barrel % (5.8%), but he ranks 106th in total barrels and obviously has more hits than anyone in the majors not named Freeman, Markakis, Martinez, or Merrifield. So he isn’t always crushing it, but he’s crushing it an average amount while also getting far more hits than most.

In summation, I’ll be buying Gennett in 2018. We’ll see if he sticks with the Reds or is traded elsewhere. But in general, this is a quality big league player who should hit for average and pop more than 20 home runs again. So long as the team context is solid, he should be a contributor in four of five hitting categories. And you OBPers should love the career .333 mark, as well as the last two elite years with regard to on-base skills (.342 and .364). What’s not to love about this guy?