Time for Scott Schebler to Become the Center Piece?

Hey, the Reds are good again. This is fun! They’re finally playing like the team I told you to expect. Go ahead and start printing those playoff tickets, am I right?

OK, maybe we should pump the brakes on that talk, but Cincinnati’s recent stretch of good play (24-19 over the last six weeks) has given us reason for optimism, if nothing else. These days it isn’t quite so difficult to imagine a 2019 Reds team that is vastly improved, and even in the mix for a playoff spot.

Last week, I laid out my blueprint for precisely how the Reds could get back to being competitive by next April. One of my seven easy steps to success was this one:

Find a shortstop and/or a center fielder before Opening Day 2019. If (Nick) Senzel or (Eugenio) Suarez can’t play shortstop, the Reds really need to seek trades for either an everyday CF or SS. Cincinnati simply needs more production out of one or both of those positions than they’re currently getting. If Suarez/Senzel can handle short, perhaps the Reds can live with (Billy) Hamilton (or even (Jose) Peraza) in center field until (Taylor) Trammell is ready to take over. And the club needs to give Trammell every opportunity to prove he can be a big league center fielder sooner rather than later.

One whole week later, I still believe this is true. But what if the Reds don’t need to go out and find a center fielder? What if they already have one here in Cincinnati, right under our collective noses?

I’m talking about Scott Schebler. If you’ve been following me on Twitter or at Redleg Nation, you know that I’ve been saying all year I didn’t think Schebler had the defensive chops to handle center field on an everyday basis. I’m still not entirely sure that he can handle the position satisfactorily. But the more I’ve seen Schebler and the more I’ve considered the question, the more intrigued I become.

One of the consistent highlights of this season has been Schebler’s play. After missing time early in 2018 to injury, he’s been outstanding. In 230 plate appearances, Schebler has hit .282/.352/.471 with 12 doubles and 9 home runs. His OPS+ is 121, his wRC+ is 123, and his wOBA is .356. He’s been worth 1.8 wins above replacement, his strikeout rate is down, and he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before.

More interestingly, since being installed in the leadoff spot in the lineup by manager Jim Riggleman, Schebler has responded by posting a slash line of .339/.393/.571 and scoring, on average, one run a game. He’s quickly and effectively making an excellent case to be in the Reds plans for the next few years. So why not center field?

Schebler is certainly athletic enough to handle the position. He was a big-time athlete in high school, setting track records in the 55-meter dash, the long jump, and the 800-meter relay, all while playing basketball, football, and soccer too. And it’s not like he hasn’t played the position before; in fact, he loves playing in center field.

“I played there enough,” Schebler told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon earlier this season. “In all honesty, and it may sound cocky, I enjoy center more. It’s easier for me. I’ve played them all. I think center is easiest. You get the truest read. In right and left, you get all these nasty curveball-slider top spin. I’m used to all of them. Center field is not an adjustment at all for me.”

I dug into Schebler’s defensive numbers to see just how poorly he has played center in the past. Go look at them yourself. Certainly, defensive metrics aren’t particularly reliable, but tell me what you see in those numbers that indicate Schebler is incapable of playing a decent center field. What I see is that, over the last couple of years, he’s actually been slightly above average in 200 innings at the position. Or at least average, depending on how you look at it. Certainly, his numbers look better in center than they do as a right fielder.

But again, defensive metrics are kinda screwy, and we’re not talking about a lot of innings anyway. What about the eye test? Aaah, well that’s a different story entirely. When I watch Schebler play center field, he just doesn’t look comfortable out there.

But this is precisely why we need to judge on metrics and not on what our lyin’ eyes tell us. When I watch Schebler play center, he sometimes can’t get to a ball that I think should have been caught. But what if—and hear me out, I’m not a crackpot—that’s only because I’ve become accustomed to watching Billy Hamilton play world-class defense at the position. Everyone suffers from that comparison.

In other words: The only argument I can make against Schebler as a center fielder is that he isn’t as good defensively as Hamilton. Well, guess what? No one on earth is as good with the glove as Hamilton, in my opinion. Anyone the Reds put out there will be worse. Mike Trout would be worse defensively than Hamilton. (Note: If the Reds can acquire Trout, they should do that. #analysis)

Here’s what I can tell you, though: Schebler would have one of the better bats in the league as a center fielder. If he had been strictly playing center this season, his 123 wRC+ would be the seventh-best among all qualified center fielders; it would be the fourth-best mark in the National League. Schebler’s .356 wOBA would also be seventh-best in the majors. (I love Billy—he’s my favorite player, as you know—but Hamilton ranks in the bottom five in MLB in both categories.)

I don’t know if Schebler will keep hitting like this, though I suspect he’ll be in this neighborhood for the next couple of seasons, at least. And I don’t know if he will be able to handle the everyday rigors of playing center field. He may fall flat on his face.

Isn’t this the perfect time to find out? This is a great opportunity to get Schebler plenty of reps at the position, in low-pressure situations. If he can’t handle it satisfactorily, then the Reds can push him back over to one of the corners and continue their search for a center fielder. At least they’d have more information at their disposal, and that should be what they’re trying to get out of this lost season.

But if he can handle the position, well, that’s one less spot they would need to fill via trade or free agency. It could be a huge boost to the (seemingly never-ending) rebuilding process.

And, selfishly, I really need Schebler to prove that he’s capable of being an everyday player for the next good Reds team. This guy was born between games two and three of the 1990 National League Championship Series, exactly two weeks before the Wire-to-Wire Reds clinched the World Series.

As a writer, that storyline is too good to pass up. A baby is born in the middle of Iowa (a cornfield, perhaps?) while the Cincinnati Reds are in the midst of a historic run to a championship. He grows up to become the stud center fielder on the team’s first championship club since 1990, even (as I envision it) hitting a memorable home run in the very first inning of the World Series to lead his team to a stunning victory over the heavy favorites from the American League.

I’ve already begun writing the screenplay.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available now in bookstores and online. He’ll be signing copies of the book at 2 p.m. June 30 at the Reds Hall of Fame.

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