“Gerardo Parra will bounce back” was the low-hanging fruit of preseason Rockies predictions. It’s tough to be among one of the worst players in all of baseball for consecutive seasons, especially given a much better track record, so some sort of improved season was extremely likely. But just how much better he’d be compared to 2016 was under more debate. I counted myself among those who envisioned a better season, but still not a very good one. That’s because Parra’s poor season at the plate had less to do with bad luck and more to do with what looked like a decline of skill. The results were bad due to a poor process.
Another perspective could have been imagining a return to his career averages prior to 2016—an average major-league outfielder. But because this is baseball, neither of those things happened. Instead, Parra is having a season that exactly nobody expected. He’s having a career year. And just like Parra’s poor 2016 seemed to be more than a set of outcomes, so too does his resurgence.
The 30-year-old Parra is having his best offensive season right after his worst offensive season. His 2016 was well below all of his career norms. In particular, his on-base percentage tanked in 2016. While his slugging percentage was close to his career mark heading into the year, it’s necessary to adjust for the boost Coors Field gives to slugging. The result was an OPS+ 32 points worse than his career mark.
His 2017 season has been completely different. Parra’s slugging percentage in 2017 is 90 points higher than his previous career high, and it’s not just due to hitting at elevation. His OPS+ of 125 is 28 points higher than his 2009-2015 OPS+ and 12 points higher than his previous career high, which he set back in 2011.
2017 season stats are through Saturday’s game.
Parra’s 2016 season was much maligned, and the target was mostly his walk rate. In 2016 Parra posted an abysmal 2.4 percent walk rate, which was the worst in baseball for players with at least 350 plate appearances. That played a big role in his similarly abysmal on-base percentage, which was fourth worst in baseball. To make matters worse, Parra struck out a bit more than he had in the past, though it was still a better than league average strikeout rate.
Thus far in 2017, Parra’s walk rate has improved to 3.8 percent. That’s still not good, and it’s still below his career norm, but it’s at least better. Parra has also improved his already better than league average strikeout rate, too. In fact, his 14.6 percent strikeout rate is the best of his career.
Not striking out means putting the ball in play, and putting the ball in play means there’s a shot that good things will happen. That brings us to Parra’s BABIP. Parra is currently sporting a career high .392 batting average on balls in play. That’s well above his career BABIP heading into 2016. It’s also the statistical outcome that suggests luck has played a role in his 2017 resurgence. At the same time, however, it’s worth noting that Parra’s below average .297 BABIP could have played some role in his 2016. But, as stated before, there were more reasons than results to think that Parra’s first year with the Rockies was due to either a loss or decline of skill rather than capricious bounces of the ball.
All of Parra’s underlying process stats from 2016 suggested a genuine fall from the mount of solid averageness. His line drive rate fell while his groundball rate rose; he swung at everything and didn’t make as much contact. The shrinking line drive rate suggests that the when he did make contact, it was usually an unthreatening ball on the ground hit without authority.
In 2017, the opposite of all of that has taken place. Parra’s hitting more line drives than he ever has in his career. That adds a little substance to his extra high BABIP. He’s also hitting more fly balls. Taken together, and his groundball rate has fallen a full eight percentage points from last year.
Something else that’s fallen a full eight percentage points is Parra’s swing percentage. Parra’s plate discipline changes from 2016 to 2017 offer additional insight into his transformation for the better just a year after his transformation for the worse. In 2016, Parra swung at more pitches than he ever had before. In 2017, he’s swinging at fewer pitches than he ever has before. That goes for pitches both in and outside of the strike zone. The final ingredient here is that Parra’s swinging less but making as much contact. And, as noted above, that contact is harder this year than it was in 2016.
It’s also worth noting that Parra is seeing fewer strikes in 2017 than he did in 2016. Last year, 49.5 of the pitches Parra saw were strikes. That figure is just 45 percent in 2017. In other words, pitchers seem to be less inclined to give him something to hit, for good reason. That could mean that the advanced scouting from major-league opponents are taking Parra a bit more seriously than might have been expected given his 2016.
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Parra has exhibited real differences at the plate that suggest his 2017 resurgence is no fluke, even considering that what he’s done at the plate surpasses his best previous season. At the same time, we have to remember that a short year ago, Parra exhibted real differences at the plate that suggest his steep and dramatic decline in 2016 was no fluke. It’s all another example of the total unpredictability of baseball, even when we center matters of process that should reveal the lies of outcomes. Instead, Parra’s just had his worst and (so far) his best offensive seasons back-to-back.
While this article could reasonably end with a variation of “we don’t know anything” or a shrug emoji, there is one takeaway worth pointing out. Another member of the Rockies currently mired in his worst offensive season is Ian Desmond. He, like Parra last year, is in the first year of a multi-year contract for significant money. We, and the Rockies, don’t have to look far to see a player take a 180 degree turn from one year to the next.