Martinez was once a near-statistical clone of Parra. They are both left-handed throwing, left-handed hitting utility outfielders who could moonlight at first base, began bouncing from team to team in their early 30s and, really, are one in the same when it comes to playing baseball. Martinez has noticed it while coaching Parra for the past three weeks. Parra, on the other hand, has to trust the numbers and his manager’s judgment.
“I’m too young to have watched him, don’t you know?” Parra said with a big smile at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, before the Nationals’ 5-4 win over the Braves. “But he told me recently, ‘You’re just like me; I played the same way.’"
Since joining the Nationals on May 9, Parra has won a game with a grand slam, kept Washington from being no-hit, manufactured another victory with his bat and legs and, overall, been a jolt of energy for a team that so badly needed it. He signed a one-year deal after he was designated for assignment by the San Francisco Giants. He has been used as a stopgap first baseman, left fielder, center fielder and late-game pinch hitter, and Martinez feels uniquely aware of how to best use him.
And that’s because Martinez was used just like this throughout a 16-year career that spanned from 1986 to 2001. He played all three outfield spots and, at 32, Parra’s age now, began regularly helping out at first base when needed. His career slash line at that age — consisting of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage — was .276/339/.396. Parra’s is .277/.324/.404. When Martinez retired, his career on-base-plus-slugging percentage was .730. Parra’s is .728. Parra is listed as one inch taller, 5-foot-11 to Martinez’s 5-10, and they both had compact frames. They even discuss their roles the same way, Parra looking ahead to his next opportunity, Martinez looking deep into his past.
Martinez, last week, reminiscing: “As a role player, I came every day prepared because you never know what you’re going to be asked to do. There’s something fun about that because it could be a really big spot.”
Parra, on Tuesday, readying for a game: “Every day you have to come in, be happy, be prepared. Because you don’t know what it’s going to be, could be anything, and that’s exciting. Really exciting.”
This first came up Monday, after Parra made a leaping catch against the wall and threw out Miami Marlins catcher Jorge Alfaro trying to advance to second base. Bullpen coach Henry Blanco told Parra that his arm still wasn’t better than Martinez’s. They all laughed, and, right then, Martinez told Parra that watching him is sort of like looking in a mirror.
There are differences between the two, big and small, starting with how they lead. Parra is vocal in the dugout, often laughing with teammates before and after games, always making his voice heard. Martinez was quiet as a player, setting an example with his play, more likely to have one-on-one conversations than talk in a group. Parra was a regular left fielder in his prime and hits for a bit more power than Martinez did. Martinez mainly played center and was faster on the base paths.
But they are totally aligned in viewing first base as a midcareer challenge that was never easy.
“Now you’re kidding me,” Parra said when told Martinez played some first, just like him. “That part I don’t believe."
Martinez hadn’t played the position until he was 27 and with the Cincinnati Reds. He showed up at Candlestick Park one day, ahead of a game against the Giants, and there was a first baseman’s mitt on the chair in front of his locker. He thought his teammates were tricking him, but once he looked at Lou Piniella’s lineup, he realized it was no joke. The first ball hit to him struck his foot and rolled into foul territory. Martinez tried not to look at Piniella, who he knew was steaming in the dugout, and they soon had it out.
He recalls the exchange going something like this:
“I thought you said you could play first base,” Piniella challenged him.
“No,” Martinez shot back. “You said I could play first base!”
Parra is trying to avoid those types of mistakes — and confrontations — though he still finds himself adjusting to being much closer to home plate. Martinez wound up with 137 career starts in that spot. Many of those came with the White Sox in 1997 when Hall of Famer Frank Thomas hurt his right foot. Parra’s made seven of his 27 career starts at first for the Nationals because, in part, of Ryan Zimmerman’s plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
“First base is very tough for me,” Parra said. “The ball comes fast, and sometimes a runner is in front of you, too. But Davey’s helped me. Everyone helps me.”
And Martinez is doing his best to keep Parra as fresh as he can at the plate. It’s hard when Parra comes off the bench — and is in a mix of pinch hitters that can include Howie Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki on a given night — but Martinez knows how tough it is to produce after a bunch of games off. He lived that as a player, much like Parra does, and so he’s mindful of not keeping him out of the lineup for too long.
That’s where the manager’s playing experience comes in handy. Martinez can look at his new utility outfielder, the one who already has saved the Nationals enough times for one year, and safely say he has been there before.
“I know the player in Parra,” Martinez said, for a lot of reasons.
Read more on the Washington Nationals: