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August 2, 2012

Overthinking It

Have Glove, Will Learn to Hit

by Ben Lindbergh

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Plenty of weak-hitting players from baseball’s past and present have gotten by on good gloves alone. Most big-league benches boast a part-timer whose sole strength is an ability to play capable defense at premium positions. But despite Brendan Ryan’s best efforts, relatively few players become stars unless they can combine good gloves with big bats.  

Fortunately, not every good-field, no-hit player is destined to stay that way. Legendary glove man Ozzie Smith was a good player who turned into a great one when he learned how to hit in his late 20s. Defensive players of Smith’s caliber are few and far between, but some of today’s finest fielders could follow a similar trajectory. This season, the following five defense-first players who entered 2012 with reputations as easy outs have become much tougher to retire, transforming themselves (at least temporarily) into all-around threats instead of one-dimensional talents.

Jeff Mathis, C, Blue Jays
Before this season, Mathis had been one of the worst hitters in baseball for the better part of a decade: from 2005 to 2011, only one player (Humberto Quintero) made a minimum of 1000 plate appearances with a TAv worse than Mathis’ .207. But Mathis’ former manager, Mike Scioscia, valued his defense so highly that he often inserted him into the lineup ahead of superior hitters (meaning anyone other than Mathis). 

This season, Mathis hasn’t just hit better than he ever has before, he’s hit better than the average catcher. He hasn’t played enough to make a major impact, but in just 35 games and 110 plate appearances, he’s contributed half a win to Toronto. That makes this the first season in which he’s played above replacement level, according to WARP (which doesn’t currently capture all of his defensive contributions). His plate discipline stats and walk, strikeout, and batted-ball rates don’t look much different, and his BABIP is well above its usual norm, which would seem to suggest that his small-sample success is a fluke. But the improvement isn’t all batting-average based, the result of a few more bloops and bleeders. Over the last seven seasons, 68 percent of Mathis’ hits were singles. This season, only 48 percent are. And his fly balls have left the park almost four times as frequently as they did from 2010-2011.

Some of that can be explained by his move from Angel Stadium, a hard place to hit right-handed homers, to Rogers Centre, a far more favorable offensive environment. But there might be more to it. Shortly after Mathis’ move, former catcher Gregg Zaun claimed that Mathis had better power than was generally believed and speculated that his hitting would improve once he was free from Scioscia’s single-minded emphasis on defense. If a new mindset has played a role in Mathis’ surprising success, he might manage to retain more of his gains at the plate than we’d expect from the typical one-season wonder.

Craig Gentry, CF, Rangers
In May, I called Gentry the Rangers’ secret weapon, but by now, the secret is out. Since the start of the 2011 season, Gentry has recorded outs on 11.1 percent of the batted balls allowed by Rangers pitchers—the highest percentage of team balls in play caught by any center fielder with at least 300 innings at the position over the same span. With Gentry in center, Rangers opponents from 2011-2012 have reached base at a .287 clip and slugged .354. With anyone other than Gentry in center, Rangers opponents have reached base at a .302 clip and slugged .380. Over hundreds of plate appearances, a difference of 15 points of OBP and 26 points of slugging leads to a lot of runs saved. Gentry is a fly-ball pitcher’s best friend.

However, Gentry generally hasn’t been an asset on the other side of the ball. The 28-year-old entered this season without a history of mashing in the minors and with a career .222 TAv for Texas—a career mark also owned by Neifi Perez. Outfielders who hit like Neifi Perez don’t play much, since they make more outs at the plate than they can possibly make up in the field. Even in late April, Ron Washington saw Gentry as a defensive replacement who might make some starts against southpaws.

Things have changed since then. Overall, Gentry has posted a .294 TAv, the seventh-highest figure among center fielders with at least 200 PA, and his hot hitting during Josh Hamilton’s extended slump has earned him the start in center in 18 of the Rangers’ last 25 games. Despite his part-time play early on, Gentry’s 1.8 WARP makes him the Rangers’ third-most-valuable player. He has the eighth-highest BABIP of any hitter with at least 200 PA, which suggests that he won’t hit this well for long, but even with a bat around average, his glove would make him an asset. If the Rangers beat out the Angels in the AL West, Gentry will have been a big reason why.

Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers
Andrus has been one of the two Rangers worth more to Texas than Gentry, and he owes much of his 2012 value to improved performance at the plate. Among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2010-2011, only Juan Pierre, Ichiro Suzuki, and Derek Jeter hit singles as a higher percentage of their hits. But Andrus has shown a bit more power this season, and further incremental advances likely lie ahead. He’s always been young for his league, and even in his fourth year with the Rangers, he’s only 23. In the field, he’s consistently rated above average, and he’s racked up over two wins on the basepaths since his big-league debut. As he approaches his prime, his developing bat should make the Rangers’ decision about where to put Jurickson Profar even more difficult.

Alcides Escobar, SS, Royals
Advanced stats suggest that Escobar might have slipped some on defense this season, though a steady supply of flashy plays ensures that his reputation for having a great glove remains intact. However, even when his defensive stats matched his scouting reports, Escobar’s below-average bat prevented him from making much of a contribution. He rarely strikes out, and he batted .315 in two Double-A seasons, so there was some evidence to suggest that the .245 average he recorded over his first two full big-league seasons might not reflect his future potential. At age 25, that potential is peeking through. Escobar will probably always hit for a pretty empty average, but as long as that average is high, his glove should make him good enough to start for a contending Royals team.

Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers
Gomez has always had speed, and the advice for speedy players who’ve never shown much in-game power is always the same: hit the ball on the ground. Gomez doesn’t draw walks, and as one of many Mets who were rushed to the big leagues under Omar Minaya, it seemed as if his only chance of contributing on offense was to slap the ball the other way, beat it out, and try to steal a base. Once in a while, the approach paid off: during his rookie and sophomore seasons, only four players converted a higher percentage of their grounders into infield hits.

But Gomez doesn’t look like a slap hitter: he’s listed at 6’4”, 210, and at age 26, he has the strength to do something different. He made some strides at the plate last season but remained a below-average batter. This season, he’s added even more power and become an above-average batter, not just by center-field standards, but overall. Tellingly, he’s no longer hitting the ball on the ground as often. Over the last three seasons, 50.5 percent of Gomez’s balls in play were grounders. This season, only 38.8 percent have been classified as such. Gomez remains an excellent fielder and baserunner who ranks just a few spots below Gentry on the center-field catch percentage list and leads the Brewers in BRR. By fulfilling his power potential, he’s set himself up for an impressive prime. 

​A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

1 comment has been left for this article.

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