The questions about Nick Senzel have remained the same coming into every season over the past three years. Can he finally stay healthy and be a productive big-league hitter?
Last year, he played in a career-high 110 games. He still missed time due to COVID and a broken toe at the end of the season, but he largely stayed on the field. The productivity, however, was nowhere to be found. Senzel hit a meager .231/.296/.306 with a 66 wRC+ and only five home runs in 420 plate appearances. There was speculation that the Reds could move on from Senzel during the offseason, or that he needed a change of scenery at the very least. The team stuck with him despite a longer-than-expected recovery from the toe injury, encouraged by an end-of-season change to his batting stance that helped him hit the ball with more authority.
Although fans were pulling for Senzel as hard as ever and hoping the stance change yielded results, expectations weren’t high for him coming into the 2023 season. Now 27 years old, he seemed destined to be a case of “what-if.”
What if the Reds had left Senzel at third base? What if the Reds had prioritized at least keeping Senzel in the infield, playing him at second base instead of accommodating Scooter Gennett? What if the coaching staff never messed with Senzel’s stance during his rookie year? What if Senzel never tore up his shoulder colliding with the outfield wall in St. Louis during his rookie year? What if he had just stayed healthy?
But after a hot start to his 2023 season, the question many are asking is: What if we gave up on Senzel too soon?
Senzel shows signs of life
Due to his slow-healing toe, Senzel got a late start to spring training and began the year on the injured list. He returned on April 13, with the Reds planning to deploy him as a utility player at all three outfield positions, second base, and third base. Senzel started slowly, hitting .139/.225/.167 in his first 40 plate appearances. Even the most optimistic of Reds fans were wondering if it was time to relegate Senzel to a bench role or move on from him altogether.
Then, on April 25, Senzel had three hits against the Rangers. The next day, he hit his first career walk-off home run. Later in the week, he homered in back-to-back games for the first time since his rookie season. Senzel was named the National League Player of the Week from April 24-30, the first Reds position player to win the award since Joey Votto in 2021.
Since April 25, Senzel is batting .343/.418/.571 with a 164 wRC+ in 79 plate appearances. His season slash line is now .274/.353/.434 and his wRC+ is up to 111, meaning he’s been 11% more productive than the average hitter. Senzel has also become the everyday third baseman in recent weeks and has showed signs of why scouts believed he was an above-average defender at the hot corner as a prospect.
But is Senzel really showing sustainable signs of breaking through in his fifth major-league season? Or is this merely a hot streak and nothing more?
A closer look at Senzel’s offensive outburst
Because we’re only talking about 119 plate appearances, it’s fair to approach Senzel’s excellent start with trepidation given his career numbers. Minus a blip last July, he hasn’t hit this well at any point since the first part of his rookie season in 2019.
What, if anything, is Senzel doing differently to get better results?
The big thing that stands out is he’s hitting the ball in the air more frequently. Senzel currently has a career-low 37.6% ground-ball rate, per Statcast, well below his career average of 45.4%. His average launch angle is 16.5 degrees, up from a career average of 12.2 degrees. Only nine qualified hitters have seen a bigger jump in average launch angle from 2022 to 2023.
There’s some good and bad in this development. The not-so-great news is that he’s hitting a lot of pop-ups, the worst kind of contact a hitter can make. His 10.6% pop-up percentage is well above his career rate (6.5%) and well above the MLB average (7.1%). He also owns a career-low fly-ball rate (22.4%). However, Senzel is hitting line drives — the best type of contact — at a career best 29.4% rate. That ranks 27th among 246 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this season.
Senzel isn’t hitting the ball demonstrably harder in terms of his average exit velocity (87.7 mph), which is exactly in line with his career average. Even though Senzel isn’t hitting the ball harder than he has in the past, he’s making solid contact more frequently than last year by pulling the ball a lot. Like most hitters, Senzel makes harder contact when pulling the ball and he has a 44.7% pull rate this season, by far his career high and well above league average (36.8%). His 35.3% hard-hit rate is up by two percentage points from 2022, more in line with his 2019 and 2021 rates.
With Senzel’s tangible improvement in elevating the ball, he’s turning some of his groundouts into liners over the infield. This is why he has an 95th percentile expected batting average despite a 28th percentile average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. And when he does hit the ball hard, he’s finding gaps and clearing outfield fences more frequently than he has in the past two seasons.
This is also why his improvements may be more than a fluke. While Senzel has a higher BABIP (.309) than his career average (.290), the variance can be explained by something Senzel is doing differently (hitting more line drives) as opposed to just luck. Compare his actual numbers to the expected numbers, which are based on contact quality (exit velocity, launch angle):
The power numbers aren’t anything special, as his isolated power (ISO) is exactly league average and his xISO points toward regression. Still, he’s showing more pop than he did the last two years combined (.072 ISO, .111 xISO), which is encouraging.
Additionally, players can be productive with below-average power if they hit for average and draw walks — and Senzel is doing both. His xBA backs up the line-drive approach and actually show he’s underperformed. Only 12 players have a better xBA than Senzel, and the list is truly impressive: Ronald Acuna Jr., Bo Bichette, Luis Arraez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Freddie Freeman, Yandy Diaz, Bryan Reynolds, Nico Hoerner, Anthony Rendon, Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Ramirez, and Kyle Tucker.
Senzel is also being more patient at the plate, helping him squeeze out even more production. His walk 10.1% walk rate is the highest of his career and ranks in the 61st percentile. He also has the lowest chase rate of his career by far (20.9%, 86th percentile), and strikes out less than the average hitter (73rd percentile). That’s why his wOBA and xwOBA — which give a better indication of a player’s offensive production as a whole — are nearly even. Both numbers are also well above league average (.319 wOBA, .315 xwOBA).
Are there areas of concern?
Beyond the small sample size, platoon splits are an area to monitor with Senzel. Almost all of the damage he’s done this season has come versus left-handed pitchers, which is why he has started batting second against southpaws.
- vs. LHP: .467/.500/.733, .526 wOBA, 231 wRC+
- vs. RHP: .197/.299/.316, .281 wOBA, 66 wRC+
Senzel has a .500 batting average on balls in play against left-handed pitchers, which simply isn’t going to hold up over time. On the flip side, he’s been quite unlucky against right-handers (.228). However, he’s been far more fortunate against southpaws than he’s been unfortunate against righties. He’s produced closer to his career norms against right-handers while hitting at an unsustainable rate against southpaws. Here are his career numbers for reference:
- vs. LHP: .280/.329/.422, .323 wOBA, 96 wRC+
- vs. RHP: .230/.301/.347, .286 wOBA, 71 wRC+
Still, although Senzel might regress against southpaws, his expected metrics are strong. They also back up the notion that he’s had tough luck against righties and should see positive regression against them.
- vs. LHP: .369 xBA, .496 xSLG, .395 xwOBA
- vs. RHP: .273 xBA, .400 xSLG, .342 xwOBA
While it’s probably too early to declare Senzel’s season as a “breakout,” there are encouraging signs that he’s becoming a productive MLB hitter. He’s been worth 0.5 fWAR this season; in the three seasons prior, he had been worth a combined -1.2 fWAR.
He’s displayed tangible improvements at the plate — namely, an improved ability to lift the ball — which has raised his floor even though he’s not hitting for a ton of power. An improved eye at the plate only boosts his production. Senzel still has something to prove against right-handed pitchers, but he’s destroying lefties, establishing himself as a reliable platoon bat at the very least. Even if that isn’t particularly exciting, it’s far better than the expectations most had for Senzel entering the 2023 season.
Yes, it’s going to be tough for Senzel to fight off Elly De La Cruz and other infield prospects to keep the third base job in the long run. A utility role may still his path moving forward, assuming he can stay healthy. But his bat, rather than his former top-prospect status, is finally keeping him in the lineup in his fifth MLB season. After all Senzel has been through, he’ll certainly take it — as will the Reds and their fans.
Featured photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire