ANAHEIM, Calif. — It might seem illogical to the general population, but it is completely reasonable in the minds of the experts making the baseball decisions for the Arizona Diamondbacks: Gerardo Parra won a Gold Glove for the Diamondbacks in 2011, but he isn’t a starter for them in 2012.
One of those experts — none other than Arizona manager Kirk Gibson himself — readily says that Parra still has the best defensive abilities on the team. And yet the player who started 117 games in left field (along with six starts in right and one in center) for the Diamondbacks a season ago is now just the team’s fourth outfielder, despite very respectable offensive numbers that include a .269 batting average and a .344 on-base percentage so far this year.
Or maybe it’s because of his offensive numbers rather than despite them.
“It is a difficult thing for him,” said Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero during a mid-June series against the Angels in Anaheim, “because he is a young kid. But 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. You know, power hitters.”
And power is the one thing lacking from Parra’s game. He hit only eight home runs and drove in 46 in his Gold Glove season last year, and the Diamondbacks figured they needed more than that to go with the 31 home runs they got from right fielder Justin Upton and the 20 they got from center fielder Chris Young in 2011. In the offseason, they signed Jason Kubel, who has hit as many as 28 home runs in a season (2009) and driven in as many as 103 (also in 2009), although his power numbers weren’t that good for the Twins last year (12 and 58). Kubel has started 61 of Arizona’s first 76 games in left so far, and takes season totals of 11 home runs and 50 RBIs into Saturday’s game at Milwaukee.
Parra, a Venezuelan listed at 6 feet (though in person he appears a bit shorter), has 22 home runs and 158 RBIs over almost four seasons with Arizona. His game, offensively, does not match the style of a Curtis Granderson or a Matt Kemp; rather, he is something of a throwback to the days when teams didn’t insist on a minimum of 20 home runs and 80 RBIs from their outfielders — to the days when, say, former Dodgers center fielder Brett Butler could be chosen for the 1991 All-Star Game for his ability to create multiple offensive opportunities on the basis of hit placement and speed.
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There is still room in baseball for players such as Parra, of course, especially if — as Montero maintains it will — the steroid-free game soon reverts back to an appreciation for the style of players from the decade of the ’80s. Even now, Gibson and his coaches recognize the value of finding a way to get his fourth outfielder into the lineup as often as possible. Parra is among the National League leaders in one of the more obscure, yet meaningful, defensive statistics in baseball: Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR, which measures a player’s defensive abilities in comparison to the average. In 2011, according to this stat, Parra had the sixth-best rating (9.8) among major league outfielders. Some are of the opinion that this contribution is as important as driving in runs on offense.
Hitting coach Don Baylor, for example, recounted a game earlier this year in which Parra almost single-handedly prevented the Giants from scoring five runs — first by catching what looked like an unreachable drive that would have emptied the bases if it had fallen in, then twice preventing a runner on third from challenging his arm in a tag-up situation. So Parra might not be above-average on offense, but his defensive work makes up for it.
It was easier for Gibson to find playing time for Parra during the just-concluded stretch of interleague games when the Diamondbacks played in American League ballparks and he could list one of his other three outfielders — Kubel, Upton or Young — as the designated hitter. Through Wednesday night, Parra has started a total of 48 games through Friday night, splitting them among all three outfield positions: 28 in center, 13 in left and seven in right.
“He is a very good player beyond what he accomplishes at the plate,” Gibson said. “He is an aggressive ballplayer who brings a lot of energy to our club.”
Gibson and the team, according to Parra, thoroughly explained the decision to sign Kubel and essentially give him the Venezuelan’s starting job in left field.
“They were straight with me,” Parra said. “They told me they needed to sign another home run hitter, which they did by signing Kubel. But they explained to me that they’d also use me, so I was thankful to the manager because he was straightforward with me.”
In addition to his starts across the outfield, Parra has occasionally been used as a late-game defensive replacement and a pinch hitter often enough to have appeared in 56 games thus far. Still, Arizona’s only Gold Gove winner in 2011 isn’t a daily starter in 2012, and it’s because of his offense. As much as the Diamondbacks would like more power from him, they also want Parra to improve on his discipline in the batter’s box.
That’s a shortcoming that Parra readily recognizes.
“The truth is that I sometimes get very desperate at the plate,” he said. “I go after the pitches and [Gibson] asks me to get some strikes and be more patient. That is, to work a bit more on patience at the plate.”
“He is still a young player who is developing offensively,” said Gibson. “He needs to be more selective about the pitches he swings at. I always remind him to take some pitches. He must be more selective.”
Baylor speaks about him in similar terms.
“We are working with him so that he shows more restraint when swinging,” Baylor said. “He takes too many swings without considering pitches. He is still a youngster in progress. I think he can be a great leadoff hitter, but he needs to make better choices at the plate. When he masters that, the sky’s the limit. And he will do it because he is a hard worker.”
For now, Arizona will try to capitalize on Parra’s defense — his range and his arm — to help them win. Montero, the catcher, sees that potential every time Parra is in the outfield.
“Some days ago playing against Texas, Josh Hamilton came to bat with two men on and I said to him, ‘If you’d like to bring in those two runs, you better not bat in the same direction as Parra,’ and he laughed,” Montero said. “Every time I see that they [hit toward] him and there are runners in scoring position, I prepare myself because I know there will be a play at the plate.”
That’s the Gold Glove part of Parra’s game. Perhaps the rest will come, and he’ll have a full-time job in the outfield again.
“The only thing I can control is working harder at the gym and working hard when they give me the chance to play,” Parra said.
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