One month ago, on a pleasant Friday evening at Great American Ball Park, the rookie slowly walked toward home plate. An ovation rose above the stadium as the Reds’ public address announcer Joe Zerhusen intoned in that inimitable voice: “The center fielder, number 15, Nick Senzel!”
It was the first time Senzel had made that stroll on a big league field, after years and years of work (and far too many months of waiting for the Reds to give him an actual shot). It was a setting designed to make anyone’s knees knock, especially when he could look up and see more than three dozen of his family and friends standing and cheering as they waited anxiously for his dream to become a reality.
The kid took a deep breath as he stepped into the batter’s box, then promptly swung and missed the first pitch he saw. He took the second for a called strike two. But down 0-2, Senzel proceeded to work the count to full, then fouled off a couple more pitches before finally flying out to center field, robbed of his first big league hit by a diving grab from San Francisco’s Kevin Pillar.
Two innings later, Senzel got another chance. He took a ball to begin the at-bat, then looked at two called strikes. After fouling off a pitch, Senzel took three more pitches outside the zone and was issued the first base on balls of his major league career.
At that moment, anyone who was paying attention should have realized that Senzel—who had seen 15 pitches in his first two big league at-bats—was more than ready for prime time. He worked the count like an old pro and didn’t get over-aggressive simply because it was his first shot and he wanted to make his mark. Both times he dug himself a two-strike hole, and both times he patiently found his way out. Senzel demonstrated a maturity in the batter’s box that’s rare for someone making his debut with all the expectations of a storied franchise resting on his shoulder.
In the month since that debut, Senzel has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. Over 28 games and 134 plate appearances hitting mostly leadoff, he’s posted a line of .267/.331/.450 and an OPS+ of 101. He’s striking out more than you’d like to see but is controlling the strike zone, posting an above-average walk rate, and getting on base consistently.
A fun way to look at it: If we prorate Senzel’s current production after one month over an entire 162-game season, he’d have 185 hits, 35 doubles, 12 triples, 23 home runs, 29 stolen bases, and 69 walks. Not bad for a rookie, eh?
Defensively, Senzel still has some maturing to do, but he’s demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has the athletic chops to handle center field on a daily basis. He’s shown well above-average sprint speed and made his share of great catches and great throws. As he continues to learn the position, there is no reason to believe he won’t be one of the better defenders in the league. Remember, he’s played just 36 games in center in his entire life, so he has plenty of room to improve (even though the eye test tells us he’s already pretty good).
To be sure, the defensive metrics aren’t kind to Senzel yet, but those are notoriously fickle when we’re talking about such small samples, and I expect them to stabilize as we get more data. Certainly Reds manager David Bell believes that Senzel can handle the position. As noted by Joel Luckhaupt, since his debut, Senzel has been on the field for every single one of the opposition’s 1,034 plate appearances. Only two other players in all of baseball have played 100 percent of their team’s defensive plays since May 3.
There’s a big reason Senzel has been in the lineup every single day: The offense started rolling since he joined the major league roster. In the 31 games before Senzel’s debut, Reds hitters collectively posted a slash line of .207/.281/.368 with 39 HR; that’s a .278 wOBA and 67 wRC+ to go along with -0.9 WAR (yeah, a negative number). Here are the same stats since May 3: .262/.329/.451, 45 HR (in three fewer games), .331 wOBA, 102 wRC+, and 4.6 WAR.
Now we can’t give the kid all the credit, or even most of the credit; this offense was too good to continue hitting that poorly over the long term. But there is no question that the Reds offense has been far more productive since Senzel traveled up I-71 to join the team, and his installation at the top of the order has been one of the primary reasons.
Another reason: Joey Votto is finally looking like the guy we all know and love. Three weeks ago, I wrote that I was seriously worried about Cincinnati’s former MVP while adding that no one should ever bet against Votto. In just the last week, he’s raised his batting average nearly 40 points while hitting .467/.485/.567.
I’m going to give Senzel and his (dare I say) Votto-esque approach at the plate full credit for inspiring Votto to return to form. That has to be the reason, right? Surely it can’t just be because Votto is perhaps the best hitter on planet Earth. Or maybe Votto was motivated to prove that my public worrying here at Cincinnati Magazine was premature?
I kid, of course. But I’m completely serious in my affection for Senzel’s game and his talent. There will be times this year that he’ll struggle, as pitchers around the league adjust to him (and vice versa). He’s not the second coming of Joe Morgan or anything like that. But if one month of a player’s career can tell us anything, it’s that Senzel is the real deal.
Welcome to Cincinnati, young man. Feel free to stick around a while.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.