Around this time last year, Scooter Gennett was unhappy. He was coming off the best season of his career, and entering his final year of team control with the Cincinnati Reds, the team that claimed him off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers two years prior. In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jon Fay last February, Gennett said he wanted to stay in Cincinnati, and that he and his agent had communicated a desire for a contract extension to the Reds’ front office. He was miffed, though, because he said the Reds hadn’t responded. The state of free agency seemed incredibly bleak at the time, and Gennett was a 28-year-old middle infielder with a short, and somewhat complicated, track record of success. It was reasonable for him to be motivated to lock in a deal that would keep him off the market for the foreseeable future.
The deal never came, and before the regular season could begin, Gennett’s circumstances suddenly turned south. He tore his groin while diving for a groundball in a spring training game on March 22, an injury that caused him to miss the first three months of the season. Upon returning in late June, he struggled through 21 games with the Reds before being traded to San Francisco, where he continued to flounder until the Giants released him after just 21 more games. Six months later, a new round of spring training games have begun, but Gennett still hasn’t found a new home. It’s understandable that clubs are hesitant to give a job to a middle infielder with a limited skillset who might be in questionable health. It’s also a magnificent bummer to see a player who seemed so close to landing life-changing money be unable to get a job just a year later.
The ups and downs of the last few years of Gennett’s career are enough to give you whiplash. A 16th round pick in 2009, he worked his way into being a good-not-great prospect with Milwaukee before his 2013 debut, when he impressed with a 129 wRC+ and 2.0 WAR in just 69 games. In each of the next three seasons, however, he regressed, accumulating a total of just 0.4 WAR from 2015-16. As the Brewers sorted through their infield options the following spring, Gennett didn’t make the cut, and was waived by the team less than a week before the season started, with the Reds claiming him on March 28, 2017.
Right away, he made Milwaukee look foolish. He hit a pinch-hit homer for the Reds on Opening Day, and hit two more dingers in his next six games. Two months later, he did the unthinkable — four homers and 10 RBIs, not in the span of a week, but in a single nine-inning game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He finished the year with 27 homers, after hitting a total of 35 over his first four seasons combined, and owned a 123 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR. The following season, he was even better. His power dipped slightly, but his on-base and defensive numbers went up, and he finished with 23 homers, a 125 wRC+ and 4.5 WAR, making him the most valuable player on his team.
Over his first two seasons with the Reds, Gennett was the sixth-most valuable second baseman in baseball, and produced the fourth-best offense. That production, combined with him still being a couple years away from 30 and playing for one of the few teams who were acting aggressively last winter, seemed to make him an excellent candidate for an extension. When it became apparent he wasn’t getting one, his potential free agency became more of a puzzle. The list of recent free agent middle infielders to sign a multi-year contract isn’t very big, and the list of infielders who were a similar age to Gennett is smaller still:
|Year||Player||Age||Position||Prev. Year WAR||Prev. 2-Year WAR||Years||Dollars|
If Gennett had reached 2.5 WAR in 2019, he would have produced more value over the final two years of his old contract than everyone on this table except for Lowrie, who was five years older when he signed his deal. But again, it’s difficult to find a good comparison for Gennett. He doesn’t have the standout tool or the pedigree of Moustakas, he doesn’t defend as well as LeMahieu, and he’s much younger than half the players listed here. In terms of late-blooming breakout success, Cozart and Murphy are probably the best matches, but they were a couple of years older than Gennett when they signed their contracts, which might help explain why neither have panned out. If Gennett had put together another healthy season with above-average offense and starter-quality value, I think it’s reasonable to believe he might have landed a contract in the $30-$40 million range, which would have doubled or even tripled the money he’s made to this point in his career.
After suffering the injury in spring, however, Gennett was far from living up to that kind of standard. Over 139 PAs, he hit .226/.245/.323, giving him a 44 wRC+ and -0.5 WAR. He struck out 41 times, and walked just twice. Those are the numbers of someone who isn’t even rosterable, and comprised one of the worst single-season drop-offs in value in recent memory:
|Player||Years||Year 1 WAR||Year 2 WAR||Difference|
Gennett’s drop isn’t the worst in this time frame, but it does carry the added damage of happening in a contract year. It also doesn’t help matters that even in his productive seasons, it was never quite clear how good he really was. When Gennett had his monster power breakthrough, going from a .141 career ISO in his first four seasons to a .236 ISO in 2017, it came in the same year that the juiced ball discussion began to take hold, as league-wide homer rates reached their all-time high. The following season, his .180 ISO was closer to league average, so Gennett’s offensive value had to be held up largely by a sterling .310 batting average — a figure that didn’t appear sustainable given his .357 BABIP. Gennett was one of the best second basemen in the majors for two years, but everywhere you looked, it seemed he was getting lucky:
According to Statcast, Gennett had the fifth-highest difference between his actual slugging percentage and his expected slugging percentage in 2017, and followed that by having the sixth-highest difference in 2018. Was all of that luck? Probably not — there are some players in the game whose offensive profiles give them a better chance of outperforming or underperforming their expected numbers than the average player. If the direction Marcell Ozuna is hitting the ball can plausibly cause him to consistently hit for less power than Statcast thinks he is capable of, a similar effect could affect Gennett in the other direction. But it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to bank on, and some sort of regression appeared to be in store.
But even if it’s likely Gennett wasn’t really as good as he appeared to be in 2017-18, it’s also likely he isn’t really as bad as he was in 2019. Injuries are logical excuses for any player experiencing a down year, but in Gennett’s case, the time away also seemed to cause him to force things at the plate in a profoundly harmful way:
From a plate discipline standpoint, his numbers in 2019 were the kind you’d expect from a pitcher, and a particularly poor-hitting one at that. Gennett’s approach was never his strongest quality, with consistently below average walk rates and a career swing rate comfortably over 50%. But whatever this is? This had never been the plan before. And in a year that saw only modest changes from the previous two seasons in his batted ball profile, this is what sticks out as the cause of Gennett’s problems. It could mean his already mediocre approach at the plate has completely tanked, making him someone who is best-suited for crushing juiced Triple-A balls. But it seems more likely to me that, after missing half the season in his contract year, Gennett was desperate to run into a few to prove he was still capable of it.
With spring training in full swing, however, it appears there aren’t many front offices that share in that kind of optimism. A search for Gennett’s name on MLB Trade Rumors reveals something close to a wasteland — only the Cubs have been reported as having interest in him, and it’s been a month since that report dropped. Considering how many teams could benefit from a left-handed hitting infielder off the bench — the White Sox, Astros and Rangers come to mind — that lack of interest is surprising. A groin injury ought to have less of a lasting effect on a hitter than, say, a wrist or shoulder injury, so it would be strange if his health were still a major concern for prospective teams. Instead, they may simply see enough possible Gennett comparables in their own organizations to make signing him unnecessary.
And as in all extended free agent cases like this, it’s possible the level of interest isn’t the issue. Perhaps Gennett believes the injury made 2019 such an aberration, and that his numbers before were so impressive, that he is still waiting for a guaranteed major league deal that hasn’t been offered yet. Maybe he’s waiting on some club to have a spring training injury that opens up a big enough hole for him to step in and play a major role right away. Gennett may believe that’s the role he’s earned — that despite what advanced metrics say about his true talent, he really is every bit as good as the raw numbers made him look two years ago. Why wouldn’t he believe that about himself? Wouldn’t you?
That’s the thing about professional athletes. Before you can reach the major leagues, you have to honestly believe that you can do so. Sincerely believing that you have enough talent, instincts, and good fortune to make the big leagues is a truly wild thing to think about yourself, and yet all of these guys have to do it. And reaching the majors isn’t even the end of the fantasy. They don’t think they’re going to get called up and suck. They believe they will perform in the clutch, that people will recognize them when they go to restaurants, that their names will mean something to those who watch them. They think they have the ability to be great, because once you’ve convinced yourself that you’re in the top .000001 percent of baseball players in the world and therefore good enough to be a pro, what’s another or zero or two to make you one of the best in the majors, or one of the best ever?
Gennett made it to the majors, just like he always pictured, but he wasn’t great. His name meant little to anyone aside from the diehard Brewers fan, and he likely dined in peace. For four years, he did a little worse each season, and then he lost his job. But he kept coming back, because he thought he could do better. And he was right. He achieved the hitting equivalent of a perfect game, and he challenged for a batting title. His name will mean something to baseball for a long time, and maybe that makes him a misplaced target of my sympathy. He’s already made $19 million more than I’ll ever make, after all. He’s done the things every hitter believes himself capable of doing, and he has a nice life to show for it.
Acknowledging all of that, it’s still been sad to watch Gennett’s winter unfold in this way. The hard part was supposed to be over. He’d made it. He accomplished the things every hitter believes himself capable of doing, and had done so just before getting the chance to negotiate his own contract for the first time in his career. After years of growing uncertainty over whether he could stick in the majors, he’d proven he belonged. Then, one wrong step cost him potentially tens of millions of dollars. Now, he’s back at square one. And baseball is moving on without him.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.