Gerardo Parra’s out there right now as a free agent and soon, a team will sign him to play somewhere in the outfield. Plenty of teams have been linked to Parra, and understandably so. He’s entering just his age-29 season, he’s something like a league average hitter who started to lift the ball to the pull field and hit for some power last year, he’s played all three outfield positions in the past and, at times, he’s played them exceptionally well! He won’t kill you on the bases, and he should come reasonably cheap, especially considering his lack of draft pick compensation. Most everyone can afford Parra, and most everyone would have a spot for him on a roster.
The first team to emerge as a potential landing spot for Parra were the Nationals, who made a push to acquire him at the deadline. Lately the talk has shifted toward the Cubs and Mets being interested in Parra’s services. Between these three teams, a common thread exists in the outfield.
The Nationals’ only outfield opening is in center field. The Cubs’ only outfield opening is in center. The Mets’ only outfield opening is in center. The Cubs have been vocal about prioritizing their outfield defense, and we saw in the World Series that the Mets could benefit from a defensive upgrade at just about any position. So the question becomes: would signing Gerardo Parra to predominately play center field help a defense, or hurt it?
Parra won his first Gold Glove in 2011, and his big break came in 2013 when he had what was, at the time, the best defensive season by an outfielder on record. That year, Parra was worth 41 runs on defense, according to Defensive Runs Saved, 31 runs according to Ultimate Zone Rating, and 30 runs by Fielding Runs Above Average. Since then, Parra’s carried the label of an elite defensive outfielder.
Problem is, the performance since 2013 hasn’t matched the reputation. In 2014, a composite average of DRS, UZR and FRAA pegged Parra as a +2 defender in the outfield, or just barely above average. In 2015, that figure plummeted to -10. Just three years ago, Parra was considered among the game’s elite defenders. Over the last 2,000+ innings, though, all signs point to him being more of a liability than a plus. So what gives?
The first thing to keep in mind is that speed and defense peak earlier than any other part of a position player’s game. While a bat tends to peak around 26, speed and defense tend to peak around 24. Parra will be 29 next year.
Then, of course, there’s the reliability of single-season defensive metrics. You’ve heard it a million times. I always find it interesting, though, that this complaint is seemingly only made of defensive numbers. Extended slumps or hot streaks, injury, quality of opposition, opportunity and random fluctuation are all widely accepted as reasons for why a hitter or pitcher may have wildly over or underperformed what’s perceived to be their true talent level in a single season. Yet, when we see the same sort of fluctuation on defense, those variables are ignored and the fluctuation is instead used as a means to invalidate defensive metrics entirely.
Maybe it has to do with opportunity? In 2013, Parra received an abnormally high number of fielding chances. That year, the ball just seemed to keep finding him. According to Inside Edge data, Parra received 367 fielding opportunities that year. The next two years, he received 275 and 280, respectively. Roughly a hundred extra balls hit toward Parra gave him plenty more opportunity for his defense to have an impact..
Then there’s the matter of chance. Players can go on seemingly unexplainable hot streaks at the plate (hi Daniel Murphy!) and we don’t bat an eye. Couldnt’t the same happen in the field? Again, from Inside Edge, some of Parra’s defensive conversion rates, grouped by the difficulty of the play:
|Season||Inn||Remote (1-10%)||Unlikely (10-40%)||Even (40-60%)||Likely (60-90%)||Routine (90-100%)|
|2013||1355||33.3% (6)||43.8% (16)||75.0% (12)||86.7% (15)||99.1% (318)|
|2014||1161||12.5% (8)||38.5% (13)||70.0% (10)||76.9% (13)||100.0% (231)|
|2015||1164||7.1% (14)||10.0% (10)||66.7% (9)||84.6% (13)||99.6% (234)|
A two-year decline in converting the remote plays. A two-year decline in converting the unlikely plays. A two-year decline in converting the even plays. In 2013, Parra was unusually efficient at converting the hardest plays. The difference between making a remote play or not is typically a matter of an inches, and with such little room for error, there’s certainly some chance involved. Parra certainly did those things, so he deserves the credit, but it shouldn’t have been expected to continue at such a high rate. Think of it like BABIP. Sometimes, for a hitter, the balls keep getting hit to just the right spot, leading to an unusual number of hits in a year. Sometimes, for a fielder, you can imagine that balls could keep getting hit to just the right spot, leading to an unusual number of plus plays in a year.
This isn’t to discount the possibility of a decline in true talent, which could also be a major culprit for less plus plays being made. I reached out to Baseball Info Solutions for some extra background on Parra’s declining Defensive Runs Saved totals. I was provided with several interesting nuggets, the first being a breakdown of where Parra’s plus and minus plays have come from:
In 2013, Parra saved more plays than average on shallow (+4), medium (+10), and deep (+9) balls. Since, he’s been neutral on shallow (0), and slightly negative on medium (-1) and deep (-5) balls. That’s the sort of progression you’d expect from a player getting worse physically.
Then, building on that point, Parra’s average home to first times on max-effort double play opportunities:
- 2013: 4.21 seconds
- 2014: 4.32 seconds
- 2015: 4.45 seconds
The last thing worth mentioning is that, over his career, nearly half of Parra’s defensive value has come from his arm. In 2013 specifically, he led the majors with 17 outfield assists, 14 of which were “kills” (assists without a relay). Those 14 kills accounted for nearly one-third of Parra’s defensive value that season. Often times, after a season like that, runners will begin to respect a player’s arm. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Parra.
Rate of runners taking the extra base on Parra, per BIS:
- 2013: 31%
- 2014: 47%
- 2015: 44%
Perhaps this indicates Parra benefited from some poor baserunning decisions in 2013. Perhaps it indicates some physical decline in the arm strength. More than likely, it’s a little bit of both.
* * *
So, what do we know about Gerardo Parra’s defense? We know that he’s never graded particularly well in center field to begin with. He’s also past the age when speed and defense peak, and the numbers over the last 2,000 innings indicate perhaps he’s hit his defensive decline years. The numbers indicate he’s slowed on the basepaths. The numbers indicate his extreme Defensive Runs Saved total in 2013 could be partially inflated by an unusually high number of fielding opportunities, and perhaps moreso by an unusually high number of the most difficult plays being converted. The arm is either declining, or at the very least, runners don’t seem too afraid to test it.
He might not be as much of a liability as last year’s numbers suggest, but we’re now 2,000 innings removed from his Gold Glove 2013 season, and everything seems to be trending the wrong way. It would be fair to assume that Parra is now something like a league-average defensive corner outfielder, which matches his 2016 Steamer projection exactly. But an average corner outfielder isn’t the same as an average center fielder. Parra is a fine, cost-effective option in a corner moving forward, but if you’re a team in need of a center fielder and you prioritize defense, you may want to look beyond Gerardo Parra.
Thanks to Scott Spratt of BIS for research assistance.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.