August 2, 2012
Have Glove, Will Learn to Hit
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
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
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
Alcides Escobar, SS, Royals
Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers
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 .