Don’t Give Up on Nick Senzel (Yet)

It’s time we all had a serious conversation about the elephant in the room.

Nick Senzel, the former #6 prospect in baseball, continues to struggle at the Major League level. Over the course of 43 games played this year, he’s generated a slash line of .211/.267/.257 and a wRC+ of 45. To put that in perspective, for this year, Senzel has an OPS of .523. For his career, starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner has an OPS of .524. How in the world did we get to a place where an offensive cornerstone of the rebuild has a lower OPS than a starting pitcher?

It’s disappointing to see Senzel’s struggles at the big-league level, and I’m sure Senzel is equally frustrated. Say what you want about him, but he’s never struck me as anything other than a fierce competitor who wants to provide significant contribution to a contending team. It’s highly likely that his injuries and sickness that have kept him off the field, as well as the Reds moving him all around the field early in his professional career, have negatively impacted his development as a player.

Whatever the reason for his lackluster performance, the Reds are in a bit of a predicament with how to handle him moving forward. Should they keep playing him every day? Should he go back to AAA? Should he get traded? These are important questions that the front office is asking themselves as the Reds continue to struggle this season.

As a fan of the Reds, and of Nick Senzel, I wanted to dive into data to see if there’s an explanation for his poor performance. It’s worth noting that, largely due to his aforementioned injuries, Senzel actually only has 786 plate appearances as of me writing this. For context, Jonathan India has 713 plate appearances. In other words, since 2019, Senzel has barely picked up a bat more than last year’s NL Rookie of the Year. Because of this, we’re actually looking at a fairly small sample of data, in respect to the average MLB player.

More on that later…

A Poor Piece of Hitting

Shout out to YouTube baseball content creator Foolish Bailey for inspiring this analysis. In one of his videos, he discussed a new offensive stat he created called, “Good Piece of Hitting.” It measures the percentage of plate appearances that end in either a walk or a hard-hit ball. Any plate appearance ending in one of these two outcomes was called a Good Piece of Hitting. I decided to take a similar look at Nick Senzel to see what nuggets were there. For this analysis, I modified the stat slightly to look at barreled balls. In case you didn’t know, a barrel is a batted ball with similar hit types in exit velocity and launch angle that leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage.

Curious how this Good Piece of Hitting analysis looks on Senzel?

It’s not pretty.

For the season, only 10.1% of Nick Senzel’s plate appearances end in either a walk or a ball hit off the barrel, versus almost 90% ending in a strikeout or weak contact. That’s abysmal and makes sense given Senzel’s poor production this season. For context, the average MLB player has a GPH of just under 18%. Elite players, like Aaron Judge and Mike Trout, have respective GPH scores of 36.6% and 35.7% respectively. In case you’re curious about how our ex-Reds are doing, Eugenio Suarez has a GPH score of 26.2%, and Jesse Winker has a GPH score of 22.9%.

What’s interesting is that Senzel is actually doing a decent job of not striking out. For the season, he has a strikeout rate of 20.6%, which would put him in the 55th percentile for all MLB players. In other words, he’s actually putting the ball in play more than the average player. What’s been killing him this year has simply been a lack of power, resulting from not barreling up the ball.

Let’s look back at the chart, this time breaking the data down even more.

Almost 70% of Nick Senzel’s plate appearances end in a ball in play that wasn’t hit off the barrel of his bat. This inability to barrel the ball is directly translating into a complete lack of power and helps explain his lack of production at the plate. Currently, Senzel ranks in the 34th, 22nd and 21st percentiles for average exit velocity, max exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, respectively.

While Senzel has never had particularly stellar barrel rates, his production has dropped since his debut in 2019.

It’s simple really. Except for 2020 (in which Senzel had even fewer plate appearances than he does in 2022), his barrel per plate appearance stats have consistently decreased over time. He’s just not hitting the ball as hard or as far as it needs to go. The difference is made all the clearer when we look at his spray charts.

It’s night and day. He’s simply lost his power. Other advanced metrics make this clear as well. Take a look at his isolated power, for example. When he came onto the scene in 2019, his ISO was .171 (MLB average was .183 that year). Fast forward to today. Senzel’s ISO is a measly .052, the lowest of his career.

In addition to his inability to barrel the ball, there are other metrics that should concern Reds fans, namely his walk and strikeout rate.

For the 2022 season, Senzel is striking out more and walking less. His chase rate is not significantly different than 2019. He’s simply swinging too often and either missing or creating weak contact.

All of this has led to his ineffective results as a hitter.

So What Do We Do Now?

That’s the question of the day, and one about which Reds fans online have plenty of opinions. The options don’t look great either. You could trade him to a team hoping to catch a post-hype breakout, but it likely would not net much of a return for Cincinnati. It’s possible sending him to AAA may help, slotting Albert Almora Jr. in centerfield instead.

In my opinion, the best course of action is to keep giving Senzel at bats at the MLB level. Remember what I said earlier about Senzel having just a few more career plate appearances than Jonathan India? Due to his health issues, Senzel has never been able to settle into a groove in MLB. It’s possible the talent that led to scouts listing him as one of the top prospects in all baseball is still there, lurking under the surface. He simply hasn’t had enough consistent playing time to get comfortable hitting at this level. If he can figure out how to put the barrel on the baseball, his slash line will end up looking much better.

In fact, there is evidence that Senzel is capable of playing better at the MLB level. For example, consider his wOBA versus his expected wOBA based on the quality of his contact. His xwOBA (.306) is actually 60 points higher than his wOBA (.248). It’s still below average (.329), but it could be an indication that positive regression is coming. Fans also tend to forget Senzel’s very strong start to his career as a Red in 2019. Prior to the 2019 All-Star game, Senzel’s slash line was .263/.325/.455 with a .780 OPS and 8 home runs. Unfortunately, he changed his swing during the following months, and his offensive production cratered and never truly bounced back. In spite of this, Senzel still generated an fWAR of 0.6 for the 2019 season.

Finally, don’t forget that Senzel exceled offensively at every stage of the minors. In 2018, as a 23-year-old prospect in AAA, Senzel’s slash line was .310/.378/.509 with an OPS of .887. The year before, in AA, his slash line was .340/.413/.560 with a .973 OPS. That’s the player we need Senzel to resdiscover within himself. I don’t know what it would take for Senzel transform back into his old self, but I’m rooting for him to figure it out. If he becomes the guy that he’s capable of becoming, the future of this Reds team is much brighter.

Don’t give up on Nick Senzel yet. We need to see if he can recover his old form.

And Nick, if you happen to be reading this, please know that we’re rooting for you.

Mike Perry

Mike is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up watching games at Cinergy Field with his family. A recent MBA graduate, Mike has always had a passion for data analytics and uses his understanding of big data to better understand and appreciate what is happening on the baseball diamond and in the front office. When he's not watching baseball, you can find Mike and his wife frequenting different restaurants and coffee shops in the area. For questions and inquiries, please reach out to [email protected].