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Scooter Gennett and ground balls

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Scooter Gennett's offense has declined every year since he broke into Major League Baseball, are ground balls the reason?

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Shall we play a game? (How about Global Thermonuclear War?) So there’s this second baseman who, at the young age of 23, posted a .324/.356/.479 clip with a .364 wOBA and 129 wRC+ in 230 PA—lest we forget this was the rookie campaign for this mystery man. Small sample size, yes, but there’s no doubt this player was able to be effective offensively.  A .155 ISO would imply that he had some pop, while his league average strikeout rate (18.3 percent) and below league average walk rate (4.3 percent) would imply that he put the ball in play often. Of course, putting the ball in play does wonders when you post a .380 BABIP.

So we have a young second baseman who had success offensively during his first MLB stint, derived from a moderate amount of power and an ability to see the balls he put in play fall for hits. Granted not all success is able to be duplicated, and over/under performing one's true talent is common in short spurts, but Scooter Gennett was good in his limited time with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013. Then, as expected, 2014 and 2015 came after 2014, and here is how Gennett's seasons unfolded:

PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP K% BB% wOBA wRC+
2014 474 0.289 0.320 0.434 0.145 0.321 14.1% 4.6% 0.326 104
2015 391 0.264 0.294 0.381 0.117 0.309 17.4% 3.1% 0.289 77

Those results are vastly different results than the ones we led with, but why? Now I realize that Gennett was never expected to be a powerful offensive weapon for the Brew Crew, but it seems odd for the drop off to be so linear. There’s been a clear decline in production, and the easy thing to do would be to blame how he hits against left-handed pitching. As a lefty himself, Gennett has struggled mightily against same handed pitchers. How bad, you ask? Well, in terms of wRC+, he was responsible for a -19 total in 2013, -40 total in 2014, and finally a -27 total in 2015. I could go into how poorly he fares against lefties, but I think those totals paint a good overall picture. Really whenever you see a minus sign involved with a wRC+ reading, it's not pretty.

The next easy thing to do would be to point out that his lack of production against lefties has led to his overall struggles—but that really isn’t the case. Yes, he hasn’t done much against them, but he also hasn’t faced that many. Left-handed pitchers only made up 17.8 percent of the pitchers he faced in 2013, 8.9 percent in 2014, and 9.2 percent in 2015. The Brewers recognize his struggles, and they don’t send him out there against southpaws that often—platooning with Rickie Weeks in 2013-14 and splitting time with Elian Herrera, Hector Gomez, and Luis Sardinas in 2015. While he doesn’t hit well against pitchers of the same dexterity, they don’t hurt him as much, overall, as you might think.

If the general problem isn’t lefties, then what happened? What caused this drop off? Let’s turn our attention to his batted ball profile from FanGraphs:

GB% LD% FB% GB/FB Pull% Soft% Med% Hard%
2013 39.0% 24.4% 36.6% 1.07 28.8% 14.7% 49.7% 35.6%
2014 41.2% 25.0% 33.8% 1.22 32.0% 18.0% 53.4% 28.6%
2015 48.7% 21.5% 29.8% 1.63 37.5% 22.1% 55.7% 22.1%

If a hitter begins to hit the ball to their respective pull field more often one might assume the output would actually be harder contact or an increase in power numbers, as hitters are typically able to garner greater power in their respective pull fields. Normally this would be true, yet the problem for Gennett is that he hasn’t seemed to garner any power from pulling the ball more often. In fact, the lefty has suffered from weaker hit balls and worse output. Not completely uncommon, yet weird nonetheless. The cause? Look no further than ground balls.

As you can see, another thing Gennett has been doing of late is putting the ball on the ground. Hitters can have success this way (Dee Gordon), however speed is something that we often tie to having success with grounders, otherwise it is hard to sustain. Either way, putting the ball on the ground has a tendency to sap power, and that is apparent with Gennett. It’s one of the reasons for the declining effectiveness the 25-year old has when pulling the ball, but plays a larger role overall. Not only did he pull more ground balls, but the grounders he started to hit overall were worse than they had previously been—which is bad, especially when Gennett is hitting more of them:

Pull data:

GB% LD% FB% GB/FB Soft% Med% Hard% wRC+
2013 48.0% 26.0% 26.0% 1.85 13.7% 43.1% 43.1% 267
2014 58.5% 20.3% 21.1% 2.77 13.0% 53.7% 33.3% 141
2015 67.0% 21.7% 11.3% 5.92 19.1% 61.7% 19.1% 130

Ground ball data:

Soft% Med% Hard% wRC+
2013 14.1% 54.7% 31.3% 82
2014 20.0% 58.1% 21.9% 51
2015 24.5% 65.3% 10.2% 25

It’s obvious that an increased amount of grounders is diminishing Gennett’s ability to tap in to his power, and is behind the drop in his offense over the last couple seasons. It’s easier said than done to put the ball in the air than on the ground, but without overwhelming speed it is tough for hitters to last by putting the ball on the ground. It is one of the main reasons we have seen his BABIP deflate from the .380 total he posted in his rookie season. To think that he could return to that total and sustain it is ridiculous, but the he also has gone from well above average to essentially average.

I seriously doubt that this past season reflects where Gennett’s offensive talent level lies, and I don’t think 2013 was it either. Both Steamer and ZiPS project Gennett to improve a little this upcoming season, posting a slash generally around .280/.310/.405, and there’s value in that. For a guy who led off last season, that isn’t exactly the best case scenario. In my mind, Gennett should be closer to his 2014 level of production, which is something he could return to if he put the ball in the air more often. What worries me is, although this is going on, Tim Haudricourt reported earlier this spring that Gennett is dealing with some mild tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. If that injury were to linger, I wonder how it would affect his swing this season and if it might stymie any potential growth/improvement, causing him to produce offensively like he did last season.

I’m not a doctor, of course, and I don’t plan to play one online, so I guess it is just something we have to wait and see. Who knows what happens this year. Maybe he goes out and wins the MVP, maybe he completely falls apart. Who knows, it’s a strange game. I guess, in the end, the only winning move is not to play. That, and try to hit fewer ground balls. How about a nice game of chess?

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.