India and Senzel Put the Reds on Their Backs

The team’s veteran leaders, ages 26 and 27, have Cincinnati playing better ball the past two weeks.
1267

There is never a dull moment with the Cincinnati Reds. A week ago, they were on the skids—losers of six games in a row after a four-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates, on pace to lose 106 games over the course of a full season. Certain writers were discussing whether manager David Bell should be on the hot seat.

Then, out of nowhere, the Reds caught fire. The offense, which had scored just six runs in the previous six games, exploded for 19 in a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers. Cincinnati followed that up by scoring 18 runs as they took two of three in Oakland. Baseball is a strange game, man.

Even stranger, the offensive charge was led by a player who’d hit just .229 over the last three seasons. I’m talking, of course, about Nick Senzel, who was honored as the National League’s Player of the Week on Monday. In six games, he hit .476/.560/.810 with a double, two home runs, and nine runs batted in. One of those home runs was a walkoff shot in the final game of the Rangers sweep.

To me, anyway, perhaps the two most interesting Reds-related storylines this season are those involving Senzel and Jonathan India. Both were SEC infielders (Senzel at Tennessee, India at Florida) who the Reds drafted in the first round within a couple of years of each other. Senzel was taken second overall in 2016, while India went fifth in 2018. Both came with exceptionally high expectations.

Tracking the trajectory of their respective careers in the years since they began pro ball has been a fascinating exercise. Senzel was a blue-chipper, rising through the ranks quickly, while India’s minor league journey was more of a slow burn. For example, before the 2019 season, MLB Pipeline rated India as the No. 51 prospect in baseball, the only time he showed up in their prospect rankings. That same year, Senzel was ranked No. 6, the third consecutive season he’d been recognized as a consensus top-10 prospect.

Injuries (and alleged service time manipulation by the Reds) delayed Senzel’s big league debut, but he looked pretty good when he finally arrived in Cincinnati in 2019 at age 24. In 104 games, he hit .256/.315/.427 with 12 homers, 20 doubles, and 14 stolen bases in 104 games. Unfortunately, he missed the last 23 games of that season, undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in September. It was a sign of things to come.

Senzel played just 169 games combined over the next three seasons and hit only eight homers, after smashing a dozen in his rookie campaign. But late in 2022, he worked with Reds assistant hitting coach Joel McKeithan (since promoted to hitting coach) on an adjustment to his batting stance that would help him be more athletic at the plate and generate more power. The results were immediate, with Senzel’s exit velocities increasing noticeably.

And then it happened again: another injury. Senzel broke his toe, which resulted in surgery, and he entered this year (his age-28 season) as a player of immense talent who was running out of chances to prove himself.

India entered the 2023 season with something to prove as well. His path to the big leagues was not parallel to Senzel’s. India was solid, but not spectacular, in his first two minor league seasons. Entering his age-23 season in 2020, he’d played just 34 games above Class-A ball, and no one would have said that he was on the fast track to the majors.

That season, of course, was the pandemic year—so instead of playing minor league games, India spent the year at Cincinnati’s “alternate site.” Reports emanating from behind those closed walls indicated that he’d taken a big leap forward in his development, but without game action to demonstrate his improvement there were many unknowns as 2021 dawned.

Those reports proved to be accurate, as India rode a strong spring performance to make Cincinnati’s Opening Day roster as the starting second baseman. He went 2-for-4 with a double in that first game and never looked back on his way to being honored as the NL’s Rookie of the Year.

Over the off-season, India added some bulk in an effort to tap into more power, but things didn’t go well during his sophomore campaign. His numbers dropped across the board (.249/.327/.378), and he admitted putting pressure on himself after management traded away some big bats. A more likely explanation was injury; India strained his hamstring on April 14 and was never fully healthy the rest of the way.

Whatever the explanation, India reported to camp this spring with the same chip on his shoulder as Senzel, declaring early on that he was determined to be the vocal leader of this team. As he told MLB’s Mark Sheldon, “You just do it. You play with your heart. You play with passion and emotion, and it kind of just works out for itself.” He took the reins on Opening Day, going 2-for-4 with a double, a walk, and two runs scored. His energy has clearly infected this Reds team, and though the quality of the team’s baseball has been, ummm, uneven, the younger players are certainly taking their cue from the 26-year-old “veteran” India.

On the other hand, forget the energy and enthusiasm he’s bringing, or whether he’s the team’s leader. Those things are unquantifiable. What we can measure is this: India’s production so far is matching or exceeding his rookie year levels. His slash line is currently .287/.393/.396, but as Matt Wilkes noted, he’s getting on base a ton and hitting the ball hard. As the leadoff hitter, he’s scoring runs and very well may be the most important player on the club right now.

It took Senzel a little longer to make an impact this season. He got a late start thanks to the surgery, and in his first 11 games after returning to the majors on April 13 he hit just .139. But after his recent hot streak, Senzel’s season line is .310/.385/.500, and the advanced stats indicate that his new batting stance has resulted in more line drives. It’s a small sample size, certainly, but it’s encouraging nonetheless.

Top prospects when they were drafted, India and Senzel are now among the oldest players who have a chance to play key roles on the next good Reds team. [The glass is half full here at Cincinnati Magazine headquarters, for the moment.] But what will those roles be? Though he’s the de facto leader of this year’s Reds (at least until Joey Votto returns), India’s future in the Queen City is far from certain. Cincinnati has a boatload of middle infield talent in the minor leagues. Is India’s future in left field or first base? Or will he be the second baseman of the future?

As for Senzel, we’ll need to see much more than one week of good hitting to pencil him into the club’s future plans. Interestingly, though, after starting more games in center field than any other Red over the last four years, Senzel has already played four different positions in the field in 2023. Can his versatility—and hopefully increased offensive production—result in a key role for the Reds, even if it’s different than the one we had envisioned a few years ago?

Time will tell. But my favorite moment of the season so far has been Senzel’s two-run walkoff blast last Wednesday. You could see the emotion on his face as he rounded the bases and celebrated with his teammates. I watch baseball for moments like that. It wasn’t just a big win for the Reds, but it was a big step in the right direction for a player who expected to be in a different place by this point.

Three years ago, I told you that Nick Senzel has been proving doubters wrong his entire baseball career. Jonathan India could make the same claim. Let’s hope they continue to defy expectations the rest of this season, and beyond.

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

Facebook Comments