CLEVELAND — As Belgium’s attempt to equalize against France fell short in the World Cup semifinal on Tuesday, this contributor witnessed Scooter Gennett morph from desperately hopeful — wanting the Belgians to show more urgency — to crestfallen in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field. Whatever Gennett’s connection to that small European nation, it was apparently strong enough for him to take their loss somewhat personally.
While he might not have realized it at the time, it represented one of the few opportunities Gennett has had to experience genuine disappointment at a baseball park in recent years. Over the past two seasons, he’s been one of a small collection of players to transform from a marginal, contact-based hitter into a star-level bat. Gennett has never been in a better place as a professional baseball player.
After posting a career-best 27 homers and a 124 wRC+ last season, a campaign which included perhaps the most unlikely four-homer game in major-league history (as documented at SI by current colleague Jay Jaffe), Gennett has been even better this year, to the tune of a 137 wRC+. He’s recorded the 26th-best batting line amongst qualified hitters. He’s currently the 23rd-most valuable position player by WAR.
Gennett has already overcome the odds several times. He advanced to the majors after being selected as a 16th-rounder out of Sarasota (Fla.) High School in the 2009 draft. He is the rare player to enjoy remarkable success after being claimed off waivers (by the Reds last year), which FanGraphs managing editor Carson Cistulli noted last season. You could understand why Gennett, at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, might be asked for ID when he tries to enter a visiting major-league ballpark. He is one of the few physical comps to this author in the major leagues. He does not look like someone capable of hitting for much power.
In some ways, Gennett is similar to the Francisco Lindor, Daniel Murphy, Jose Ramirez, and Justin Turner, class of player in that he was a high-contact, low-power hitter who has enjoyed gains in the latter category. With the Brewers from 2013 to -15, he had a 92% or greater zone contact rate each season. But he’s arrived at his power surge differently. He hasn’t changed his ground-air batted-ball profile dramatically. He hasn’t worked with an outside swing instructor like Turner. He isn’t concerned with optimum launch angle like Murphy.
Gennett arrived here on his own, simply through experience, he says.
“I think it was always there,” Gennett told FanGraphs. “In BP, I was always able to hit home runs. My power hasn’t improved in the sense of how hard I can hit a ball. It’s always been in there. ‘How can I get it to play in a game and translate into the game more consistently?’”
That was the question, and Gennett took his own path to answering it. As he sees it, it is really a three-part solution.
Part of it is mechanical. Gennett said that, early in the 2016 season, he changed to a looser, more relaxed grip.
“That year my main focus was trying to keep my hands as loose as possible,” Gennett said. “I am kind of thinking about boxing. If I am going to try and throw a huge haymaker punch, I am probably going to tighten up… [Now] I am just going to throw jabs. It’s quicker and more effective and more accurate. That’s kind of how I think of my hands. Rather than try and kill this ball, I am just trying to relax and get to this ball and square it up. That was a piece mechanically. I basically took that into last year and this year… My bat is quicker. When I tighten up, my swing becomes longer, I don’t have as much time. I might have to cheat… My hands are more relaxed. I have more time now.”
Perhaps that explains, in part, how Gennett has improved against almost every pitch type. While the black T-shirt he wore in the clubhouse on Tuesday declared that Gennett eats fastballs for breakfast, that’s actually the only pitch against which he hasn’t recorded above-average numbers, according to linear weights. Meanwhile, Gennett is batting .302 against curveballs (.605 slug) and .302 against sliders (.585 slug) this year compared to his career marks of .284/.432 and .220/.367, respectively. He’s always handled changeups, but this year he’s batting .407 with a .537 slugging percentage against them.
The boxing analogy is interesting because Gennett’s teammate Joey Votto utilized a very similar metaphor with BucsDugout contributor David Manel in describing how he “funnels” action, how he dictates an at-bat to compel the pitcher to throw the pitch he wants to hit.
And a significant part of Gennett’s success, perhaps the salient aspect of it, is that he has compelled pitchers to throw him pitches he can drive. As Rian Wiatt wrote in mid-June, Gennett’s underlying skills haven’t changed.
“Among the 236 players on whom Statcast has collected such data, fully 219 have recorded a greater average distance on their home runs this year than Gennett’s 377 feet.”
He hasn’t dramatically changed his batted-ball profile. His 1.10 and 1.04 GB/FB ratios of the last two seasons are not too far off his 1.23 career mark. He was even more air-ball heavy at times in the minors
What he has done is become more selective, has drawn deeper counts, and attacked pitches he can hit harder.
“I feel like I am swinging at better pitches for the most part and getting myself in better counts to get good pitches to drive,” Gennett said. “You’re not seeing many guys hit balls out at the edge of the zone. They are inner-third… middle part of the plate. I’m able to put myself in a spot were I am getting those pitches more often.
“[Before] I would swing at that pitch that’s on that outside corner that’s off the plate. I’m cheating. I’m not trusting my eyes… I wasn’t getting to two strikes too often. I wasn’t giving myself a chance to take pitches and draw walks.”
Consider Gennett’s swings in 2015:
And this season:
Gennett has stopped offering as often at pitches on the outside-third of the plate and below the zone.
This is where pitches were thrown to Gennett in 2014-15:
And this season:
He’s getting a greater volume of pitches out over the plate that he can drive.
Consider his slugging per pitch since the start of the 2017 season:
Then consider his overall swing rate:
Gennett has become more selective. It makes sense that a power bloom begins there.
There is the old baseball axiom that teaching bat-to-ball skills is more difficult than teaching power. The Pirates believed that when I covered the club as a beat writer. We’ve witnessed a number of contact-oriented hitters follow such a path to stardom in adding power in recent seasons.
Gennett did say he accomplished his breakout the old-fashioned way. Again, he didn’t hire a private hitting coach. He didn’t study launch-angle changes. While he takes a cursory glance at analytical-based scouting reports, mostly he arrived at this status as a well above-average hitter through experience, through trial and error.
“I think just maturing as a ballplayer,” Gennett said. “The more you play at this level, the more you learn about yourself and adapt to what they are trying to do to you.”
Gennett said something else has helped him: playing time. Regular work against left-handed, same-sided pitching.
“If something isn’t right mechanically, it gets exposed left-on-left,” Gennett said. “If I’m not squared… That’s how you do the best as a hitter when you hit consistently. I never had that chance in Milwaukee.”
This season, Gennett has hit lefties well, with a 127 wRC+ against to go with a 141 mark against right-handers.
It’s difficult to know if some of these breakouts are for real, if Gennett’s 2017 was a fluke in a year of the juiced ball. It was difficult to know if he was unusual in benefiting from a more lively ball. But with the ball perhaps de-juiced in 2018 and his success continuing, the outcome looks more and more real. He looks like a bat that can help a contender that loses out or is not willing to play in the Manny Machado sweepstakes. Gennett appears like a player worth believing in and buying into.