A quick glance at May’s OPS leaders across Major League Baseball shows plenty of familiar sights.
At the top are Mike Trout (1.206 OPS) and Mookie Betts (1.200 OPS), who are currently neck-and-neck in the early AL MVP race. Both players are putting up eye-popping numbers, and the race for the award should come down to the very end of the season. At number three is Indians slugging third baseman Jose Ramirez, who has followed up his 2017 breakout year with even better numbers.
But then comes Reds second baseman Scooter Gennett, a name that you probably did not expect to see at the top of the May OPS leaderboard. In 99 plate appearances this month, though, Gennett hit .398/.418/.720. Amazingly, though, Gennett’s .479 wOBA and 207 wRC+ this month is not the best month of his career. That distinction belongs to Gennett’s June 2014, when he hit .397/.447/.692 over 78 plate appearances.
When you picture slugger, you don’t tend to think of someone named “Scooter,” let alone think of a 5-foot-10, 185-pound baseball player that was a former 16th round pick, but here we are. Gennett has become a slugger. Yes, seriously.
Incredibly, there’s one night that almost perfectly exemplifies Gennett’s transition from a light-hitting infielder to one of the league’s most prolific power hitters. (Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch.)
Coming into the night of June 6, 2017, Gennett carried a lifetime .279/.317/.422 slash line over his first 1,754 big league plate appearances, spanning five seasons. In his first 117 plate appearances of the year, Gennett was hitting .270/.308/.450 with three homers, a line that will play, especially for a utility infielder that was not in the everyday lineup.
That night, Gennett went off. In a Reds 13-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, Gennett took Adam Wainwright deep in the third, John Gant in the fourth, Gant again in the sixth, and John Brebbia in the eighth. Adding in his first inning single, Gennett had a 5-for-5 night with four home runs, ten RBIs and four runs scored. He became the 17th player in MLB history to homer four times in a game (there are now 18 after J.D. Martinez accomplished the feat) and the 17th player in MLB history to drive in ten runs in a game.
Consider the likelihood of the situation. Gennett, who had hit just three home runs in 117 plate appearances to begin the year, hit a home run in four straight plate appearances in one night.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s one thing to have a four-homer night, but it’s another to hit homers consistently. A four-homer night is just one of those random things that can happen in a baseball season, even for a 5-foot-10, 185-pound player named Scooter. And yet, Scooter did not just stop hitting home runs after that one June night. Gennett embraced his new role of power hitter for the rest of the season, slashing .293/.344/.516 over his final 94 games with 20 more home runs.
Now, with Gennett’s start to 2018, he has nearly an entire season’s worth of plate appearances since the four home run game. His line is up to .312/.356/.529 alongside a .375 wOBA and a 133 wRC+. Gennett, who had 38 career homers to his name before June 6 in 1,754 plate appearances, has 30 homers in 597 trips to the plate after.
At this point, it’s probably not a surprise to you as to what happened. Like most hitters who have experienced an increase in power over the past two years, Gennett’s came with a higher launch angle and an increased exit velocity. It wasn’t the average exit velocity that did it for Gennett; rather, it was an increase in the number of hard-hit batted balls. Gennett’s hard hit percentage jumped from 24.8 percent in 2016 to 35.5 percent in 2017 and now to 38.8 percent in 2018.
Even still, Gennett is evolving, even from 2017 to 2018. Statcast groups pitches into three main categories: fastballs; breaking pitches, which include sliders and curveballs; and off-speed pitches, which are generally changeups. Gennett has six home runs against non-fastball pitches this year, already a career-high for him. Historically just a fastball hitter, Gennett has adjusted to be able to hit other types of pitches in addition, and the results have been superb.
What is most incredible to me is the swiftness in which Gennett was able to transform himself. It’s almost Daniel Murphy-esque. After hitting seven homers in 39 plate appearances for the Mets over the 2015 NLDS and NLCS (where he was named the MVP), Murphy went on to hit 48 home runs over the next two seasons with the Nationals, after hitting just 62 in his seven seasons prior. Murphy flipped a switch and sustained it; Gennett has pretty much done the same.
Scooter Gennett might be a surprising name on the May OPS leaderboard, but if his last 500 plate appearances give any indication, it won’t be his last time near the top of those boards going forward.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.