Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/14/14
Mlb-diamondbacks-tigers
Entering the spring, Gerardo Parra was once again a man without a home. After a starting a career-high 124 times in 2011, and doing so handily, Parra shifted back into part-time status in 2012. But with Adam Eaton and Cody Ross both suffering injuries before the season began, and Jason Kubel landing on the disabled list with a strained left quad two weeks into it, Parra has once again been seeing regular action. In the process, he has not only acquitted himself well, but also helped hold down the Dbacks offense in the early going. Parra started on the right foot, with a four-hit showing on opening day that included a single and a double off of the seemingly untouchable since Adam Wainwright. He has been in the lineup nearly every day since, hitting atop the lineup. Six outfielders have already started at least three games in the Dbacks outfield, but Parra has been the most consistent force. He was the only Dbacks outfielder to start each of the first 16 games, and overall has started 20 of the team’s first 22 contests. And he has provided a steadying presence throughout. Parra has reached base in all but one game this season, and reached base multiple times in nine of them. That has been ointment for the snake bites Arizona has inflicted upon itself. As we sit here today, Parra and Paul Goldschmidt are the only qualified hitters on the team who have hit well throughout the month. Cliff Pennington? Forget about it — his 27 wRC+ is seventh-worst in the game among qualified hitters thus far. A.J. Pollock is doing about what he is capable of, but his 1.4% walk rate (fourth-worst among qualified hitters) doesn’t portend much continued success at the dish. Those aren’t necessarily guys the team was counting on producing at the dish — Pennington has already lost the bulk of his playing time to Didi Gregorius — but Miguel Montero and Martin Prado are certainly key pieces in the D-backs’ sand-blasted puzzle. And both have been black holes in the early going. Of the 20 qualified catchers in the game thus far, only Ryan Doumit and Alex Avila have been less valuable than has Montero. And Prado, who is rocking a .284 wOBA, is not making Dbacks’ fans any less bitter about the Justin Upton trade. Parra, on the other hand, has hit for a healthy .364 wOBA and 127 wRC+. He seems to be adjusting on the fly as well. As Dave Cameron pointed out earlier today, the spot in National League lineups that sees the least amount of balls in the strike zone is the leadoff spot, which is where Parra has hit in 16 of his 20 games thus far. Parra is bearing that out in the early going, as he is seeing a career-low 42.9% pitches in the zone. As a result, he is swinging at more pitches out of the zone, though he isn’t making contact more contact against them. Where he is making more contact however, is on pitches in the zone. His 94.7% Z-Contact% places him 17th out of 193 qualified hitters. It’s a big jump over his Z-Contact% last season — more than eight percent — and would be a career-best if he held it throughout the season. He’s not just making more contact though, he’s also hitting the ball further. Last year, according to Jeff Zimmerman’s Baseballheatmaps.com, Parra’s overall average batted ball distance was 271.9 feet. Thus far this season, he has improved to 286.4 feet. This holds up when isolating for just homers, fly balls and line drives as well — 279.5 feet last year and 293.9 this season. That might help explain the jump in Parra’s power output in the early going — his current ISO and SLG would easily be the best marks of his career. It’s far too early to tell if that will be a season-long trend, but if it did it wouldn’t be all that shocking. Parra has seemingly been around forever — he debuted back in 2009 — but this will only be his age-26 season, so it wouldn’t be crazy if he grew into his power a little bit. Parra is currently ninth among qualified position players in WAR, a number that is no doubt heavily aided by a super-sized defensive performance, and one that should flatten out in the coming months. We’re barely 15% of the way into the season, and Parra is already nearly halfway to the best UZR of his career. Still, combine above-average offense with above-average defense and you have the makings of a four-win player. The Dbacks thought they had a couple of players like that in their outfield this season, but with Eaton sidelined, Parra has filled the void admirably. He may need to continue to do so, even when everyone gets healthy. Ross has never hit righties well, and with one walk against them in his first 36 plate appearances, he isn’t exactly off to a smashing start against them this year either. Ross plays decent defense, but against right-handed pitching he will be quite clearly be the team’s fourth-best option once Eaton returns, as Ross’ defense doesn’t measure up well against Parra. Despite a deflating injury to Eaton, and slow starts from Montero, Prado, J.J. Putz and David Hernandez, the Dbacks have held serve in the early going, and with their next six games against the Rockies and Giants they have a chance to vault into first place. He hasn’t done it all by himself, but Parra deserves a lot of the credit for taking a seemingly unlikely opportunity and running with it. If it continues, he will end up as one of the season’s most pleasant surprises.
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