Craig Gentry, Model Role Player

Gentry
The utility infielder. The backup catcher. The bench bat. The lefty specialist. The long man. The fourth outfielder. These are the titles given to members of a baseball team that speak to the relatively insignificant role that they play. They are not the foundation of the team. Rarely are they long-term, or permanent pieces of a franchise. They are the part-timers. They’re not the stars, and yet on winning franchises it can be the contributions from these sources that push a team over the top. 
Craig Gentry entered the 2013 season as a contender to be the starting center fielder for the Texas Rangers. By the end of Spring Training, center field had been relegated to a platoon between Gentry and Leonys Martin. After Gentry hit the disabled list in June with a fractured hand, Martin played his way into the starting opportunity in center field, with Gentry having started just five games in center field in the month of August.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the limited playing time, Gentry has hit .341/.436/.455 in the 20 games he has played since returning from the disabled list, along with six stolen bases in seven tries. Getting that kind of production off of the bench from the team’s fourth outfielder is a huge lift to the club. Combine that with Gentry’s stellar range and ball hawking in center field, and he is a legitimate weapon in Ron Washington’s arsenal.

If you look at the Rangers leaders in rWAR this year, you’ll see that Gentry is sixth on the club at 1.7 rWAR. That is more than Mitch Moreland, David Murphy, and Lance Berkman combined. He has accumulated that total in 72 of the team’s 124 games, and he has only started in 46 of those games, entering as a late defensive replacement in the rest of them.

Last year, Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus wrote this piece on Gentry, calling him “the Rangers’ secret weapon”. In it, Lindbergh’s research points out that (at that time) since the start of 2011, no other player in baseball had caught a higher percentage of balls in play than Craig Gentry. It also points out that Gentry was far superior than any other center fielder the Rangers employed during that time, and it reflected in a reduction in opponents’ slugging percentage on balls in play. If a ball goes in the air into center field, no one has a better shot of catching it than Gentry.

Last season, Gentry set a career high in games played at 122, and games started at 66. Even in that expanded role, he still tallied the type of playing time associated with a fourth outfielder. His playing time has gone down slightly this year due to the emergence of Martin, and yet Gentry has continued to produce value to the Rangers from a role player position.

Gentry is not a great hitter. His batting average has dipped from .304 in 2012 to .250 this season, mostly driven by a decline in Batting Average on Balls in Play from .364 to .309. And yet, Gentry has offset the decline in hits by increasing his walk rate, which now sits at 11.2%, more than double the 5.2% he posted in 2012. For Gentry, who only had 16 extra base hits in 2012, a walk is virtually as good as a base hit, especially with his ability to steal bases. His increased walk rate this season is leading Gentry to a third consecutive season with an on-base percentage over .345, a feat that is only matched among current Rangers by Lance Berkman.

Gentry will turn 30 years old this offseason, and will reach arbitration eligibility for the first time in his career. Expectantly, he will once again carry the fourth outfielder title for the Rangers in 2014.

In some ways, Gentry is a weapon that is not deployed often enough, as was the case in the Rangers Friday night game against Seattle when his insertion into the game as a defensive replacement could have changed the game’s outcome.

In other ways, Gentry’s usage is just right, particularly when it prevents him from being over-exposed at the plate as a hitter.

In every way, Craig Gentry is in the conversation of being one of, if not the most valuable fourth outfielder in all of baseball.

The Rangers are fortunate to get this kind of production from a role player like Gentry. These kinds of players can be the glue that championships are formed out of. It can take a good team to the next level to have scrappy players like Gentry who will fight tooth, nail, and knuckle for every bit of playing time that he gets, and can deliver on the field. What Gentry brings to the field ought to be appreciated and recognized, and in more ways than simply by a catchy nickname.

There’s no call for more playing time for Gentry here, or a request to sign him to a long-term contract to keep him a Ranger for life. But I enjoy watching Craig Gentry as a Texas Ranger, and hope that he is the kind of player this franchise will continually employ. 

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Eddie Middlebrook
Eddie Middlebrook is Senior Writer for @ballparkbanter9 and @shutdowninning. Formerly with @wfaasports and @FoxSportsSW. @IBWAA member. Eddie can be found on Twitter @emiddlebrook.

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