On Sunday Bobby Parnell came in a game in the sixth inning for the first time since April 18th. He had gone four days without pitching but retired the side in order and lowered his ERA to 2.96 for the season. In a year where the bullpen has been justifiably criticized, Parnell has been a solid performer throughout the entire season.
Coming into the year, the Spring Training fluff pieces said that Parnell had a new breaking ball and that he was going to sacrifice velocity for control. And with the season in the home stretch, we can see that both of these stories were true. After throwing a slider earlier in his major league career, Parnell has been utilizing a curve (sometimes referred to as a knuckle-curve). And his average fastball velocity has gone from 97.2 to 95.8 mph.
Previously in the majors, Parnell established that he was going to strike out a lot of guys and allow a lot of baserunners. With the changes to his pitching approach, Parnell has kept his high strikeout rate. He came into the season with a lifetime average of 8.34 K/9 and currently holds an 8.56 rate. But what has been most impressive has been what’s happened with his baserunners. Lifetime he had a 1.54 WHIP prior to this season and he now carries a 1.30 mark in the category.
Parnell had a history of both high BABIPs and high BB/9 totals. His .335 BABIP over the 2008-2011 seasons was the second-highest mark among relievers with at least 100 IP. But here in 2012, his BABIP checks in at .317, a career-low. Where he has really made strides is in his walk rate. Parnell had a 3.98 BB/9 average over his previous MLB career, but has a 2.47 mark here in 2012.
After posting lower than average HR/FB rates throughout his career, Parnell has a normal 10.3 rate here in 2012. But we see that an increase in his ground ball rate has kept his HR/9 at his career rates. After posting a 50.6 ground ball rate in 2011, Parnell has a career-best 62.0 GB% this year. So despite the higher rate of fly balls leaving the park, his 0.66 HR/9 tracks nicely with his 0.61 mark of a season ago and his 0.63 lifetime rate in the category.
The Spring Training stories were real and the results have been tangible for Parnell. Ideally you want a pitcher to strike batters out, keep the ball in the park and limit walks. Parnell has maintained his high strikeout rate and solid HR/9 marks. And he’s really improved both his walks and his baserunners allowed.
Parnell entered this season with a lifetime ERA of 4.35 and he has not had a monthly ERA higher than 3.60 (July) here in 2012. His only bad stretch of the year (12 G, 8.2 IP, 7 ER, 5 BB, 9 Ks) came over parts of May and June. Besides, in his last 29 games, Parnell has a 2.25 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP, thanks to allowing just 7 BB and 24 H in 28 IP. He’s allowed just 1 HR and has 25 Ks in this time span.
Now the question becomes: Are these improvements real or just a 54.2 IP mirage? Recall that in 2010, Parnell had a 2.06 BB/9 which led to a 2.83 ERA but he followed that up with a 4.10 BB/9 and 3.64 ERA season in 2011.
Also, consider this: Parnell has a huge H/R split this year. Here are the numbers:
Split ERA G GF SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BF WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
Home 1.69 28 7 1 26.2 20 6 5 1 6 1 23 0 104 0.975 7.8 3.83
Away 4.18 32 11 3 28.0 36 16 13 3 9 0 29 1 132 1.607 9.3 3.22
These numbers can shake your belief in Parnell’s 2012 season being a step forward. Those road numbers are not good and look even worse than his 2011 overall numbers. But to me the reason not to fret about his road numbers are a look at his walk rate. Even in this bad run, Parnell has a 2.89 BB/9. It appears that he had some bad BABIP luck in a few road outings.
Parnell has nine games where he’s allowed three or more hits and as you would probably guess, seven of those have come on the road. Yet he’s had 29 games where he has not allowed a hit in an appearance and 14 of those have come at home and 15 on the road. If there was really something to this split, you would think he would have noticeably more hitless outings at home and that is just not the case.
The bottom line is that 54.2 IP is not a big sample and then cutting that in half only causes more problems. We cannot say for sure if Parnell’s improvements this year are real or a fluke. However, given that we know he has made two big changes to his pitching approach, we might want to side on this being real, unlike what he did in 2010. Of course the proof will come in the following seasons, to see if he can maintain his improved walk rate and average on balls in play.