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June 12, 2013

Overthinking It

The Ever-Underappreciated Gerardo Parra

by Ben Lindbergh

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After nine games, Yasiel Puig’s video archive at MLB.com comes close to filling four pages, at 12 clips per page. Marcell Ozuna, another exciting 22-year-old right fielder who’s hit .324/.364/.462 since his arrival in April, is still stuck on page three. Almost every play Puig touches turns into a highlight. If he isn’t hitting homers, he’s recording outfield assists; if he’s not in the game, it’s because he’s just been ejected from a bench-clearing brawl. Whatever he does, it happens at the center of the spotlight. It took him one week to be named National League Player of the Week, and it took him four words to appear in this article, which isn’t even about him. More than the amateur draft, more than Biogenesis (fortunately), baseball in June has been about Yasiel Puig.

So when Puig was thrown out attempting to advance to third on a Jerry Hairston single on Monday, it wasn’t immediately clear who the star of the story was: Puig, or Gerardo Parra, the player who made the throw. It took another viewing to determine that Puig’s presence in yet another highlight was just a coincidence, that it was Parra who’d earned Puig some extra airtime on SportsCenter, not the other way around. The throw was perfect, an on-the-fly strike to Martin Prado that nailed the speedy Puig in plenty of time,

and Parra put an exclamation point on the play by signaling the first out of the inning and channeling Dikembe Mutombo’s finger wag in one efficient motion.

Puig is new to the league and might not have known better, but he isn’t the only player who’s regretted running on Parra; Arizona’s all-terrain outfielder tied for the NL lead with 12 outfield assists in 2011 and holds sole possession with eight so far this season.* But if that continued willingness to test him is indicative of a lack of respect for his skills, Parra’s opponents aren’t alone. Hype-wise, Parra is the anti-Puig, and even his own team has gone out of its way to avoid relying on him in an everyday role.

*Sometimes he barehands the ball before he throws it. Oh, and he can catch, too: there’s this, and this, and this, and this. And that’s just in June.

This year’s All-Star ballots give fans the option to vote for three Arizona outfielders: Jason Kubel, who’s spent some time on the DL with a thigh strain and slugged .395 with his usual subpar defense; Cody Ross, who’s slugged .356 in 180 plate appearances in the corners; and Adam Eaton, who has yet to play a game at the big-league level. If you want to vote for Parra, you’ll have to write him in. He wasn't supposed to be a starter.

Early in his career, Parra was raw; he bypassed Triple-A en route to his big-league debut at age 22, and it showed in his unrefined approach at the plate. In 2011, his third year in the majors, his progress was apparent. Both the advanced stats and the eye test passed Parra’s defense with flying colors, as he led all outfielders with 14.9 FRAA and earned his first Gold Glove. He also became a more complete player, improving his plate discipline to the point that he became an above-average hitter (even in an outfield corner) and stealing 15 bases in 16 attempts. On most teams, that sort of performance would have cemented a starting role, but it didn’t do as much for his standing on the team that signed him out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent in 2004. In Parra’s player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2012, I wrote:

As he enters his age-25 season, he still has room to grow, but he’s already one of the NL’s most underappreciated players—even by his own team, which platooned him with Collin Cowgill down the stretch despite his contributions beyond the batter’s box and reverse splits in the past two seasons, then signed Jason Kubel to replace him in December.

Last March, I noted that the several million dollars Kubel was costing Arizona “may have bought the Diamondbacks a less productive player than the one they already had.” So why did the D-Backs sign Kubel with Parra, Justin Upton, and Chris Young already on the roster? “They told me they needed to sign another home run hitter,” Parra expained. Kubel did hit home runs, but he also recorded a career-high strikeout rate and cost Arizona runs in the field and on the bases. Parra became a pinch hitter/defensive replacement who filled in for Young when the incumbent was injured. As a part-time player subject to the pinch hit penalty, his offense took a step back, but he still out-WARPed Kubel in almost 150 fewer trips to the plate.

Over the winter, the Diamondbacks traded two-thirds of their 2012 outfield, shipping Young to Oakland and Upton to Atlanta. And still Parra wasn’t slated to start. Rookie Adam Eaton was expected to see most of the playing time in center, and in an unnecessary sequel to the Kubel contract, Arizona signed Cody Ross to a three-year, $26 million deal heading into his age-32 season, pushing Parra back into a bench role. Ross, like Kubel before him, seemed unlikely to outplay Parra, but he was guaranteed to out-earn him by a factor of four.

Much like last year, an injury—this time to Eaton—has given Parra more playing time than he was initially allotted. And once again, letting Parra play has worked out well for the Diamondbacks. Only Paul Goldschmidt has had more to do with the D-Backs’ status as a first-place team; Parra ranks eighth in the majors in WARP, behind only Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Goldschmidt, Jean Segura, Chris Davis, Evan Longoria, and Joey Votto. In his first extended exposure to the leadoff spot, he’s hit well (.304 TAv), posting a career-high walk rate, a career-low strikeout rate, and an elevated ISO driven by an NL-leading 21 doubles (which ties a career high). He’s fielded well, making a plurality of his starts in right but appearing at all three outfield spots and seeing significant time in center. And while his sense of when to steal has deserted him—he’s been caught seven times in 12 attempts—he’s taken the extra base often enough at other times to be in the black as a baserunner.

Parra probably isn’t quite this good—his BABIP is on the high side, even for him—but he is in his age-26 season, the point at which many players peak. Parra was once a top prospect, ranking 64th on Kevin Goldstein’s Top 100 prospects list prior to the 2008 season, so he has the proper pedigree. He’s still inexpensive, considering his production and compared to the going rate for free agent outfielders. And he’s a homegrown player who’s under team control through 2015.

So why has Parra been lower in the pecking order than past-their-prime veterans like Kubel and Ross and unproven (albeit promising) players like Eaton? When Miguel Montero was asked that question last season, he said, “the way I see it, above all, he is a victim of the profile that has been assigned to outfielders—that they must be home run hitters.” Parra doesn’t hit enough homers to fit in at the corner outfield club, and like many underappreciated players of the past, he’s an all-around talent with no true standout skills.

Parra has also been a victim of his own versatility; his ability to play every outfield position makes him so valuable as a reserve that it’s easy to forget that he might be even better in a starting role. But as comforting as it might be for a manager to have him as insurance, starting an inferior player over Parra with an eye toward subbing him in once the team has a late-inning lead makes as little sense as saving a closer for a save situation that never comes. The Diamondbacks are more likely to have that lead with Parra playing from the start, and capable fourth outfielders aren’t that hard to find. (In fact, Arizona already has one.)

Eaton suffered a setback in his rehab from a slightly torn UCL late last month, so his timetable for return is uncertain. But whenever Eaton gets back—and whomever Arizona signs this offseason—it shouldn’t be Parra who goes to the bench. The Diamondbacks' best chance to win comes when Parra plays.

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

Related Content:  Gerardo Parra,  Diamondbacks

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