For 28-year-old Nick Senzel, who moved between the infield and outfield for the Cincinnati Reds in the first five seasons of his major league career, playing predominantly center field, an opportunity to return to his original spot at third base was a major factor in his decision to sign a 1-year/$2M free agent deal with the Washington Nationals this week.
Drafted by the Reds as a third baseman out of the University of Tennessee with the No. 2 overall pick in 2016, Senzel played the majority of his games at third base last year for the first time in the majors.
Senzel was non-tendered this winter, after putting up a .236/.297/.399 line and career-high 13 home runs in 104 games and 330 plate appearances what ended up a -0.4 fWAR season with the Reds.
“Washington was kind of on my radar right after I got non-tendered by Cincinnati,” he told reporters in a Zoom call after his signing was officially announced.
“Because obviously,” Senzel explained, “playing them, knowing that there was opportunity to be able to compete for a job there — so right off the bat, [Washington was kind of on my radar], I just happened to get a great opportunity. I was able to talk to [manager] Davey [Martinez] and some of the coaches. They expect me to play third base every day. And in-game, I can move to second base and the outfield, but I think the plan is to play third every day. And that’s really exciting for me.”
It was also exciting to have an opportunity to join Lane Thomas, a friend since both played travel ball together as kids, and play alongside his long-time companion once again.
So was it the chance to go back to third or was it the opportunity to play with Thomas that pushed him to sign on with the Nationals in the end?
“I’d like to say both,” Senzel joked. “Obviously, me and Lane, we grew up playing together. And this opportunity that was brought to me, an opportunity to be able to play every day, and get a new start in a historic franchise, was just kind of just kind of a no-brainer for me. And just having Lane, one of my best buddies I grew up with, playing right field, is just— it’s really insane, to be honest. We work out here at the University of Tennessee together and still can’t believe we’re going to be teammates next year.”
Having a friend on the team who could vouch for the club and city made a difference when it came time to pick a new home.
“It’s really important,” he said. “You can go straight to the source and someone that’s been traded over from two different organizations and now has found a home in Washington, all I’ve ever known is Cincinnati, so being able to talk to him [about] kind of what to expect, he’ll obviously be honest and tell me really what to expect about everything and he has had nothing but great things to say and just super-excited that I’m going to be a part of it.”
Playing all around the field, and showing himself he could be good wherever the Reds put him meant a lot to Senzel, but the chance to play third base every day again was enticing.
It came down to, he said, “... knowing deep in my heart that third base is kind of home for me and it’s just my best position.
“I was able last year to, I think, play a little bit over a month there and pick it back up really well.
“That’s just — third base is home for me. I’ve played it. And just staying in one spot, I think, will be a little bit easier on my body.”
Considering the various injuries he’s dealt with over the years: a torn ligament in his finger, a sprained ankle, torn labrum, knee inflammation, it was an important consideration. All of the games he played at third last year reminded him of why he loves the position.
“I really like the reactionary part of it,” he said. “How everything happens so fast and the ball is on you and you have to make quick decisions and be pretty reactionary to it. I feel like – and you can ask any baseball player, probably – like the less time you have to think, the better off you are just to react. And third base is one of those positions where you can get hot shots right at you pretty regularly. But that’s probably why I love it so much. Just the pace and the quickness of it and just the reaction to it. I really like the angle of the throw … I play the ball on the run pretty well, so I do take to the angles at third base well. I would say those are probably two of the things that that’s why I love it.”
If he is going to play every day, Senzel knows he’s going to have to improve his numbers in at-bats against right-handed pitchers.
In 126 plate appearances against left-handed pitching last year, he put up a .348/.389/.619 line with nine of his 13 home runs off of lefties, and the right-handed hitter finished up with a .164/.240/.257 line vs right-handed pitchers, leaving him at .287/.334/.460 in 409 career PAs vs lefties, versus a .219/.288/.330 line vs righties (957 PAs).
It’s a focus in his offseason work.
“I would say the biggest priority is probably getting better against right-handed pitching,” he said.
“I went over to Stillwater, Oklahoma to hit with Matt Holliday and his sons for about a week.
“I’m going to head back there in January just to get some work in there.
“If you were picking one specific thing I would say just working on kind of right-handed pitching and the swing in general.”
Work he did last year, Senzel said, led to the career high in homers, and he matched his previous season high in RBIs, and pulled a higher percentage of balls than he had in any other season in the majors.
“I think I just tried to work to better my swing and better my approach,” he said.
“I think you saw that last year with a little more pull-side exit velocity, and just — I felt like when I was getting my pitch I was able to do a little bit more damage pull-side and that definitely was a thought because I knew I could go to the opposite field really well, so I was just trying up kind of focus on that, and obviously there were some good results there, but I was trying to stay throughout all parts of the field, but yeah, that was definitely a focus last year.”
Joining the rebooting ballclub in D.C., Senzel said, won’t be much different from what he left behind, with the Reds in the midst of a youth movement as well in his final year in Cincy.
“Last year with Cincinnati,” Senzel said, “... obviously the time I was there it was kind of an older crop of guys with a couple young guys coming in and then obviously with trades and stuff brought in an overhaul of young talent and just with the youth you get excitement, you get that energy and I could definitely see playing the Nationals from the other side that they brought that, you could see they play with energy and excitement and I could just see the similarities. So it will be exciting, it should be an easy transition going to a group of a lot of younger guys and just try to mentor them and just try to match the energy level with them because that youth has so much energy and it’s great for a team and great for a clubhouse.”