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May 14, 2012

Overthinking It

The Rangers' Secret Weapon

by Ben Lindbergh

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“I’ve got a chance to be a solid everyday player. In years past, I’ve had to scratch and fight just to try and make the team.”Craig Gentry, February 14, 2012

“That’s what Gentry’s job is, to be a defensive replacement and to play against left-handers. I want to allow him to do his job. … I want him to know what his role is and when that situation [presents] itself, he’s ready to do that.”Ron Washington, April 29, 2012

At 23-12, the Rangers have the best record in the American League. If anything, it should be a few games better: they’ve outscored their opponents by 80 runs, nearly four times as many as the AL team with the next-best differential. Their lineup is led by the league’s best, highest-profile hitter, and their rotation is topped by one of the league’s best, highest-profile pitchers. The Rangers don’t really need a secret weapon. The weapons everyone’s aware of are working just fine.

There’s much more to the Rangers than Josh Hamilton hitting homers and Yu Darvish bewildering batters. But success puts teams in the spotlight, and after two straight appearances in the World Series, there aren’t many Rangers who’ve remained under the radar. To find one, you have to look beyond the team’s second-tier stars to one of the bats on the bench.

Fourth and fifth outfielders aren’t expected to make major contributions. They’re supposed to offer strong defense up the middle, plus speed, and enough contact ability to avoid embarrassing themselves at the plate. They don’t even have to do that much, as Mark Kotsay has proven over the past several seasons. Occasionally, though, one of them plays well enough in a part-time role that he starts to look a lot like a starter. That’s where Craig Gentry comes in.

Gentry was a 10th-round Texas draft pick in 2006. The toolsy outfielder didn’t distinguish himself in the minors until 2009, when he hit well enough for Double-A Frisco to get a call-up to Arlington after rosters expanded in September. He followed up that breakthrough with a strong performance in Triple-A in 2010, earning a few more major-league looks, and he spent most of last season as a defensive substitute and pinch runner for the Rangers, getting into 64 games and making only 153 plate appearances. This spring marked the first time that he’d broken camp with the big club, but his role hasn’t changed: he’s appeared in 80 percent of the team’s games, but when he does play, he’s averaged roughly two plate appearances and five innings in the field.

The Ranger’s past two games make for a pretty good primer on how Gentry has been used this season. On Saturday, Gentry started against Angels southpaw C.J. Wilson and recorded five putouts in the first seven innings. He also went 1-for-2 and stole a base. But with the Rangers down 4-2 in the bottom of the 7th, Gentry due up first, and righty Jordan Walden on the mound, Ron Washington chose to pinch-hit David Murphy (who struck out swinging). On Sunday, with righty Jered Weaver starting for Anaheim, Hamilton got the nod in center so Murphy could start in left. The Rangers built up a big lead while Gentry looked on. In the top of the ninth, Washington finally removed his star center fielder and put Gentry in for defense.

Gentry is hitting .320/.370/.440 in a small sample this season, good for a .276 TAv. However, his combined TAv for 2011-12 is a below-average .255, and he might be worse than that: PECOTA projects a .240 figure over the rest of the season. On the bright side, he has little career platoon split to speak of, despite his platoon role. But the further away from the plate Gentry goes, the better his performance gets. He’s both a prolific and a high-percentage basestealer, successful in 24 out of 25 career attempts (and 145 out of 181 in the minors). And in center field, there might not be anyone better.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Gentry has played 456 2/3 innings in center field. In those 456 2/3 innings, he’s caught 11.7 percent of the balls in play Rangers pitchers have allowed. It's a small sample, but no other player on any team who’s spent at least 100 innings in center over that span has caught that high a percentage of his team’s balls in play. Here’s the top 10, minimum 300 innings:

Name

Innings

% of BIP Caught

Craig Gentry

456.7

11.7

Alejandro De Aza

452.0

11.1

Carlos Gomez

674.0

11.0

Michael Saunders

651.7

10.9

Aaron Rowand

413.7

10.8

Denard Span

864.3

10.7

Franklin Gutierrez

763.0

10.4

Rick Ankiel

970.7

10.2

Nyjer Morgan

863.0

10.2

Austin Jackson

1551.0

10.0

Gentry is as far above the second-place center fielder as the second-place center fielder is above the seventh-place one. From 2011-2012, 28.9 percent of balls in play allowed by the average AL pitching staff have been classified as fly balls. The Rangers’ staff has been slightly above-average in this regard, at 29.8 percent (sixth-highest in the AL). Gentry has probably had three or four more opportunities to field flies than the average AL center fielder would have in the same number of innings, but subtracting a few catches from his total hardly hurts his putout rate. What’s more, when Gentry is in center, Josh Hamilton is often in left, giving the Rangers two center fielders in the same outfield. (Right fielder Nelson Cruz is no slouch himself.) Unless the Rangers have perfected the art of positioning, we’d expect playing the two of them together to reduce the rate at which either one catches flies. If Gentry had played more often with a limited left fielder, he might have made it to even more balls.

To keep things consistent, we can compare Gentry to his fellow Rangers center fielders over the same 2011-12 span (in descending order of playing time: Endy Chavez, Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, Julio Borbon, and Leonys Martin). Here, too, Gentry enjoys a commanding advantage. Even when we judge him against players at the same position who were also in the same park and behind the same pitching staff (if not necessarily facing the same batted-ball distribution), he comes out way ahead.

CF

% of BIP Caught

Gentry

11.5

MLB Average

9.4

Non-Gentry Rangers

9.2

All those balls Gentry caught must have been reflected in the batting lines of the Rangers’ opponents, right? Right! Here are the Rangers’ SLGBIP and RBIP with and without Gentry in center field:

Rangers CF

SLGBIP

RBIP

Gentry

.350

.285

Other

.372

.298

SLGBIP stands for Slugging on Balls in Play. That’s exactly what it sounds like: slugging percentage for all at-bats that end with a ball in play (in other words, everything but home runs, strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and sac bunts, counting reached-on-errors as singles). RBIP stands for Reaching on Balls in Play (basically, batting average, but treating errors the same as hits). With Gentry in center, Rangers opponents have slugged 22 points lower and batted 13 points lower than they have with players other than Gentry at the same position.  

Those differences translate to roughly 11 points of True Average (TAv). That might not sound like a lot, but it’s fairly significant. Last season, 11 points separated Matt Kemp from Lance Berkman, Giancarlo Stanton from Carlos Lee, Curtis Granderson from Shane Victorino. Multiply that margin by nine to extend it across an entire lineup, and the significance becomes even clearer. Only 41 points separated the AL’s best-hitting team from its worst-hitting team last season. A difference of 11 points could have meant the difference between first place and fifth place or between 12th place and a fifth-place tie.

The numbers are impressive, but I also wanted the scouting perspective. One AL scout told me that he viewed Gentry as well above-average at all three outfield spots. I also asked for an opinion from Jason Parks, who not only knows scouting but has seen more of Gentry than anyone else I know. Jason was kind enough to give me the bite-sized scouting report below:  

I've been watching Gentry since he was drafted, and he has proven me wrong at each stop. The first few years of his professional career, I had him graded out as a non-prospect. I've never been a believer in the bat, but the defense has steadily developed from good to potentially great. 

Speed: 65/70; extremely quick; first-step is near elite; gets out of box from the right-side like a LH; speed plays up because of on-the-field instincts; excellent base stealer; well above-average range in centerfield

Glove: 65/70; another near plus-plus tool; can make every play

Arm: 60+; plus tool; good carry and accuracy; quick release 

Total D Package: Above-average that borders on well above-average; shows excellent routes and angles to ball; well above-average range; very aware and instinctual; excellent arm strength and utility for position; profiles as 4th outfielder because of bat, not glove. 

What if, as the stats suggest, Gentry’s glove is good enough to make him more than a fourth outfielder, at least for some teams? The Rangers’ roster runs so deep that in order for Gentry to start, another pretty good player would have to sit. For the most part, when Gentry plays, David Murphy doesn’t. Murphy is a much better hitter than Gentry, but far from a great one, especially in left field. Here’s what we said about him in BP2012:

Fans like David Murphy because he is a Texas native, plays with the requisite grit and hustle of someone without top-shelf physical gifts, and has the good face. Some like David Murphy so much that they champion his name as a starter, a player with enough all-around skill to play every day at the major-league level. The reality is that David Murphy is a platoon left-fielder with a good (not great) stick against right-handed pitching, a well below-average stick against left-handed pitching, and a defensive skill set that no longer has utility outside of left field. As he gets deeper into arbitration and deeper into age, Murphy is losing his luster as a cheap fourth outfielder, moving into the category of luxury despite not possessing luxury performance.

Both Murphy and Gentry are players with limited ceilings who might have windows of only a few years in which they could conceivably start for a first-division team. Murphy has been around longer, but that’s both a blessing and a curse. He’s more established, and therefore more difficult to dislodge, but since Gentry’s clock started later, 2012 is his time. Gentry has been worth roughly a win and a half to the Rangers since the start of last season, more than they’ve gotten from more regular contributors like Murphy and Mitch Moreland. If Gentry could sustain the same rate of production as an everyday player that he’s shown in a part-time role, his value would approach four wins—not quite on the level of the team’s biggest bats, but on par with bigger names like Michael Young, Elvis Andrus, and Nelson Cruz. Granted, by pinch-hitting for him when they need runs and sticking him in center when they need to prevent them, the Rangers have minimized their exposure to his weakness. But they’ve also minimized their ability to benefit from his strength, and maybe they’re not better off because of it.

Gentry thinks he can be a “solid everyday player.” Every player thinks that, probably, except for the ones who think they can be stars. But Gentry might be right. At 28, he’s as good as he’s ever going to get. He won’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2013 season, which means he’s making barely more than the major-league minimum in 2012. At worst, he’s the ideal extra outfielder, the kind of bench bargain good teams have and bad teams envy. At best, he’s a potential starter who could offer much more in a regular role, whether with Texas or a team more in need of his talents. And regardless of his role, Gentry’s defense deserves to be mentioned more often as one of the many reasons for the Rangers’ recent success.

Rob McQuown and Bradley Ankrom provided research assistance for this article.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

4 comments have been left for this article.

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