Farragut High School is nestled high atop a hill overlooking Farragut, Tennessee, just outside Knoxville. It has long been one of the powerhouses of high school baseball in the state. Since 2003, the Admirals’ baseball program has won eight Tennessee state championships, and earned a reputation for developing players who go on to play big-time college baseball. Farragut has also had a number of players who have been drafted to the big league teams (including Kyle Waldrop—the Twins pitcher, not the outfielder currently on Cincinnati’s roster—who was picked in the first round in 2004).
The school has a reputation for challenging its students academically, but they take their baseball seriously too.
A few years ago, Nick Senzel had just finished eighth grade, set to enter Farragut as a freshman in the fall. Senzel took baseball pretty seriously, as well, and had just tried out for the school’s baseball team. Farragut’s baseball coach had posted the list of players who made the cut on the gym door, and as Senzel walked up with his father, Jeff, the youngster was hopeful.
Sure, he was small—5-foot-5, maybe 120 pounds—but he was quick, and he was a hard worker. Senzel had been a star on his youth teams, but his development had been delayed by two years away from baseball. It wasn’t his fault; Jeff’s job had required him to move his family to England when Nick was in sixth grade, and it was next to impossible to find a baseball team for the little guy in a country where football and cricket were worshipped.
Nick approached the gym door slowly, looked for a moment, then turned back to Jeff. “Dad, what are we going to do?” Nick said. “My name isn’t on the list.”
As noted in a couple of excellent recent profiles of the player (here and here; both of them are worth your time), Senzel was heartbroken. “I was upset,” he said later. “Especially since baseball was the only sport I wanted to play.”
Nick Senzel responded the only way he knew: he immediately got to work. In the famous words of David Farragut, for whom the high school was named, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Shortly thereafter, Farragut hired a new baseball coach, Matt Buckner. Senzel convinced Buckner to let him work out with the baseball players in the fall. The new coach was immediately struck by the work ethic of this little guy.
Just before Christmas, Coach Buckner pulled Senzel aside after one of those workouts. “You’ll still have to try out again in February,” Buckner told him. “But you’re going to make the (junior varsity) team.”
Not only did Senzel make the JV, but he started at shortstop. The following year, he was the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter for the varsity. Senzel batted .360 and led the Admirals to another state championship.
He wasn’t drafted out of high school, but he signed to play baseball at nearby Tennessee. Before his junior season, he played in the wood-bat Cape Cod League. Senzel was named MVP, but what stood out to his coach, Jamie Shevchik, wasn’t his statistics. As Shevchik told the Knoxville News-Sentinel:
“He had unbelievable work ethic,” Shevchik said. “He understood where he was, and he obviously wasn’t going to take that opportunity for granted. He was in the weight room every morning. He took early work every day at the field. He constantly wanted to take ground balls. He was a workout machine. He became by far the best baseball player I’ve ever been around.”
Senzel is now 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds of lean muscle. During his junior season for the Volunteers, he hit .352/.456/.595 with 25 doubles, eight home runs, and 59 RBI in 57 games, raising his slugging percentage by more than 100 points over the previous season. As evidenced by his 25 stolen bases (in just 29 attempts) this season, Senzel is also athletic, and though he’s primarily a third baseman, he has played second base and shortstop in college. His coach at Tennessee, Dave Serrano, actually thinks the Reds should give him a look at shortstop in the minor leagues.
Even better, Senzel is exactly what fellow Nuxhall Way writer Jason Linden ordered: he has an excellent command of the strike zone, drawing 40 bases on balls this season, while striking out just 21 times. There’s a reason the 20-year-old was considered the best college hitter available in this draft. Some even believe that Senzel could have big-time power potential with a couple of adjustments at the plate. Jesse Burkhart of FanGraphs is particularly bullish on Senzel’s power developing over the next few years.
On the first night of the MLB draft last week, Senzel’s family and friends gathered in his living room in Knoxville to watch the proceedings on television. The Phillies took high school outfielder Mickey Moniak with the overall number one selection. Moments later, Senzel got the word from his agent. The Reds were going to take him with the second pick.
Suppressing a smile, Senzel said nothing and took a seat on his couch. “I got a little emotional,” he said. “A lot of emotions ran through my mind, but I waited it out. I didn’t tell my dad. I wanted him to be surprised.”
Coach Serrano captured the moment on video. Friends and family sat silently, waiting, watching as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred walked to the podium.
“With the second selection in the twenty-sixteen MLB Draft, the Cincinnati Reds select Nick Senzel…”
Jeff Senzel jumped to his feet, arms raised. Soon, he was embracing his son.
“When they called my name it was tears of joy, getting to hug him,” Nick told The Tennesseean. “Since I was little this is what I dreamed of happening. For it to actually be in reality, I’m honored. It’s unbelievable.”
Not long ago, when he was getting cut from his high school team, no one would have believed that Senzel would one day sign a professional contract that called for a signing bonus of $6.2 million, as he did this week. No one other than father and son, that is.
Now it’s time for Senzel, who says he’s still playing with a chip on his shoulder, to get back to work. This could be fun to watch, Reds fans.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.