The Second Baseman Conundrum

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Early Monday morning, after a weekend spent watching the Reds fumble and stumble around the ol’ ballyard, a colleague sidled up next to me before I had even poured my first cup of coffee. Without so much as a “Good morning” or “How was your weekend?” the sidler leaned in and asked: “So what do you think? Is it time for Scooter Gennett to be the starting second baseman?”

I shook my head without putting much thought into the question. As I wandered off in search of coffee, he persisted. “Homer and four RBI on Saturday. Two more hits on Sunday. He keeps hitting.”

This conversation actually occurred, and I imagine it’s happening in workplaces all across the Cincinnati area. (Is this 1956? Do people still talk about baseball around the water cooler?) I answered “no” pretty quickly, but frankly, it’s not an unreasonable question. You may remember that I’ve already declared him a Reds legend. And as the season has wore on, he has done nothing to diminish The Myth of Scooter Gennett. If anything, Gennett keeps getting better and better. The truth is, the way things stand right now, if the Reds are trying to win as many games as possible in 2017, it’s hard to argue that the club wouldn’t be better with Gennett starting every single day at second base.

So far, Gennett is hitting .312/.364/.606 with 16 home runs and 54 RBI. Those numbers look even better when you compare them to his peers. Take a look at the leaderboards for National League second basemen. (I sorted for all 2Bs with at least 200 plate appearances.) Scooter has the highest slugging percentage in the league, and is tied with Washington’s Daniel Murphy for the home run lead. He also ranks just behind Murphy in nearly every other category. Gennett is second in wRC+ (148), wOBA (.404), and third in RBI.

Plus, as I noted above, he keeps getting better. Scooter has collected hits in 16 of his last 18 games and over the last month, he’s hitting .350/.435/.738 with 9 homers.

Think about this: a guy the Reds grabbed off the waiver wire* just before the season has arguably outperformed every second baseman in the league other than Murphy, a three-time All-Star at the top of his game. And he isn’t even the everyday second-sacker for the Reds!

*By the way, the worst 2B in the NL, at least according to FanGraphs’ WAR, has been Jonathan Villar. Yep, the same Villar who Milwaukee installed as their starting second baseman, making the previous starter—Scooter—expendable. The Reds got lucky on that one, eh?

So back to the original question: should Scooter be starting every day? To answer that, you have to look at the guy who currently garners the bulk of playing time at second: Jose Peraza.

Peraza has played in 86 of the Reds 91 games thus far; 57 of those have been starts at 2B (another 25 have come at shortstop). Let’s not sugarcoat it: he has been a disaster at the plate. Peraza has a slash line of .253/.276/.331 with four home runs. If you look at the leaderboard I linked above, you’ll note that Peraza is pretty much at the bottom among all NL second baseman in nearly every offensive category. It hasn’t been a good season for the kid.

The knock on Peraza has always been his lack of plate discipline, and he isn’t showing any signs of improving in that area. Despite playing nearly every day, Peraza hasn’t drawn a walk since May 21, nearly two months ago. He’s drawn three walks in his last 70 games, and two of those came in one game! His on-base percentage is the worst among NL second basemen, and by far the worst among the Reds regulars.

Sometimes it seems like Peraza will flail at any pitch thrown in his direction. He swings at nearly 40% of pitches outside the strike zone; among NL 2Bs, only Javier Baez and our old friend Brandon Phillips swing at more bad pitches. He swings at 54% of all pitches that he sees. For comparison’s sake—and this is a terribly unfair comparison, I concede—Joey Votto swings at 20.5% of pitches that are outside the strike zone, and he swings at 43.4% of all pitches (and that’s actually Votto’s highest Swing% of the last seven years).

So the evidence before us is that Peraza has been bad and isn’t improving, while Gennett has been great and is getting better. I’m ready to announce my verdict:

Jose Peraza should be the starting second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. Manager Bryan Price has gotten this one exactly correct.

Wait…what?

I’m not ignoring the evidence above. But there are three additional items of interest that must be considered in making this decision:

1. It’s not about 2017. The Reds were never going to be competitive this season, and we all knew it. Next year is the target date. Everything the Reds do this year needs to be looked at through that lens.

If the Reds wanted to win as many games as possible in 2017, starting Peraza makes little sense. If they want to win as many games as possible next year, they need to play Peraza as much as possible. Because:

2. Jose Peraza is just 23 years old. That’s super-young in baseball terms. No player is fully-formed at 23, and it’s ludicrous to suggest that the Reds should cut bait on Peraza because of 300+ plate appearances in his age-23 season, especially when they are far below the level of performance Peraza demonstrated in the minor leagues.

Remember, the Reds aren’t looking to maximize wins this season. The club needs to get as much information as they can about their young players this year. Giving Peraza a full season of at-bats will permit the Reds to accumulate more data, and be better informed when deciding whether this is a guy they can count on over the next few years.

So far, the evidence seems to be that this is a kid with poor plate discipline and a good glove (Peraza is a top-five defensive second baseman, according to FanGraphs’ metrics). But three more months of plate appearances will tell the Reds a bit more about whether there’s hope he’ll improve as a hitter.

3. Scooter is going to be in the lineup one way or another anyway. It doesn’t have to be one player or the other. Gennett is already playing about five days a week, at four different positions. It’s not like he’s riding the pine over there in the dugout while Peraza is in the lineup every day. Gennett is still playing often (and producing).

There’s also a significant chance that Zack Cozart—soon to be a free agent—will be dealt away by this year’s July 31 trade deadline. If that happens, Peraza will become the everyday shortstop, and Gennett will slide right into the 2B hole.

Still, this is actually an interesting argument, and we’ve had similar discussions about third base (what do the Reds do with Eugenio Suarez when uber-prospect Nick Senzel is ready?) and outfield (what happens with Jesse Winker, since Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall are playing so well?). It’s a great problem to have. If Peraza pans out, perhaps the Reds have two good second basemen. You can never have too many good players, right?

So no, Gennett shouldn’t be the starting second baseman, at least not yet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still look for a spot out on Crosley Terrace to install the inevitable Scooter statue.

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.

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