Should Bobby Parnell open the year as Triple-A closer?

The Mets spent the majority of their offseason budget bringing in three relievers to shore up the back end of their bullpen. In the imperfect setting of Spring Training, none of the three new relievers has an ERA below 6.00 in Grapefruit League play. Meanwhile, Bobby Parnell, the guy that Sandy Alderson bent over backwards to remove from high-leverage innings, has yet to give up a run in eight games. In 7.1 IP so far this Spring, Parnell has allowed 4 H, 2 BB and has 8 Ks.

Parnell is tantalizing because he can throw 100 mph but it has always been a good news/bad news type of thing. The good news is that his fastball has led to an impressive 8.3 K/9 ratio in his career, including a 9.7 mark last year. The bad news is that when batters make contact, they reach base at a surprisingly high rate. Parnell’s has a .342 BABIP in the majors. Combine that with a 4.0 BB/9 and the result is a ton of baserunners against a guy that seems like he should be a shutdown reliever.

As Parnell has learned, and countless other pitchers before him have found out, there is more to succeeding in the majors than gas. Michael Baron of MetsBlog reports that Parnell “appears to have backed off throwing it as hard as he can and developed better command and control.” Andrew Keh of the New York Times reported that Parnell spent the offseason working on a knuckle-curve and Josh Thole thinks the reliever has “enough of a handle on the pitch now to throw it consistently for strikes.”

So, are these just your typical Spring Training fluff pieces or is Parnell really adding to his repertoire while also sacrificing velocity for command?

Either way, Parnell has gone from a pitcher fighting for a roster spot to one likely to open the season in the majors. The question is if it is better for Parnell (and the Mets) for him to be throwing gas in the sixth or seventh innings in New York or working on getting used to being a closer in the minors.

One of the places where there is still a big disagreement between the stereotypical “scouts” and “stats” camps is with a closer. Those in the latter group believe that any reliever who can pitch successfully in the eighth inning can do the same in the ninth. The former camp believes there is a different skill set required to close out games and not every successful setup man has the right stuff to be a good closer.

Parnell struggled when he was elevated to being a closer last year. In his career as a reliever, Parnell has a 3.22 ERA in the 6th-8th innings while he has a 4.15 ERA in the 9th inning. Of course he has 114.2 IP in innings 6-8 compared to 30.1 IP in the ninth. It seems far from settled if Parnell currently lacks the skills to be a closer or if the results we have seen so far in the ninth inning are merely skewed due to small sample size issues.

What we can say for sure is that of the 23 relievers in MLB history to record 300 Saves, only two had a higher BB/9 than Parnell’s 4.0 career mark – Francisco Cordero at 4.09 and Randy Myers at 4.03. And none of those 23 elite closers came close to Parnell’s .342 BABIP. Only four of the 23 relievers had a mark above .300, with Doug Jones’ .313 BABIP the highest in our sample.

It is my belief that the skill that Parnell needs to develop to be a successful closer is not anything related to pitching in the ninth inning but rather he needs to simply cut down on his baserunners. Even John Franco, who Mets fans will tell you was always pitching out of trouble, had a 3.58 BB/9 and a .297 BABIP. So, if Parnell can shave a half of walk per nine and reduce his BABIP 45 points – he can improve to the point of being a tightrope walker like Franco.

Right now, Parnell simply is not a good enough pitcher to be an elite closer. However, he is a good enough pitcher to be on a major league roster. I believe there’s still room for debate if it is better for Parnell and the Mets whether he begins the year in the majors or the minors. Spring Training fluff pieces or not – Parnell should be working on his command and it would be wonderful if he came up with a solid off-speed pitch to complement his heater.

A strong argument can be made that he’s better off doing these things in Buffalo. The majors is not necessarily the best place to be learning these types of things. But in my mind, the benefit of having Parnell in Triple-A is to get him away from the bright lights of New York City to work on these necessary improvements – not so that he can pitch the ninth inning of games.

Some may view this as a “Chicken and the Egg” scenario, that Parnell’s lack of closing experience leads to his baserunners and the only way to fix the latter is to get the former. But if we remove Parnell’s ninth inning performances, we see he still has a 1.494 career WHIP. None of the 22 relievers last year that saved 25 or more games had a WHIP that high and 20 of those pitchers had a WHIP of 1.276 or lower.

My preference is to see Parnell pitch in the majors rather than the minors. Then we can see if he really is trading speed for accuracy and if his knuckle-curve is a legitimate major league pitch. My concern is that if he goes to the minors, he could be succeeding due to his current ability and not because he is incorporating these very necessary changes.

I would rather see Parnell succeed in the seventh inning in Citi Field than the ninth inning in Triple-A. I think getting major league hitters out is more important than racking up saves in the minors. If these Spring Training stories turn out to be regular season realities, then I envision Parnell working his way back to being the Mets’ primary setup man by the end of the year and in solid position to take over the closer’s spot on the team in 2014.

9 comments for “Should Bobby Parnell open the year as Triple-A closer?

  1. mikey
    March 27, 2012 at 10:21 am

    no, next question

  2. David Groveman
    March 27, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I don’t feel like the process of closing is something that he can necessarily master in AAA. I think if he can get guys out in the majors and be a dynamic late-inning guy then you can work on making him a closer next Spring.

  3. March 27, 2012 at 10:53 am

    As you’re well aware (since we had a lengthy back and forth about it last week), I’ve been workshopping this idea in my head (and in comments sections) for awhile now, as well. At this point, with Carrasco likely headed to the DL, the Madoff settlement perhaps making the purse strings a hair looser, and Parnell apparently making significant strides towards becoming a pitcher, rather than a thrower, I think keeping him in the ML bullpen makes sense. The driving forces behind the question (for me, at least) were a) the costs (financial & in roster depth) of keeping Parnell in the Majors to start the season (they’d have to cut Carrasco and his $1.2M salary, keep Batista in the minors for an extra $100K, or cut Batista) and b) Parnell’s marginal status in the bullpen (in my mind, he was safely the 5th RHP option in the pen). Both of those concerns have subsided somewhat, so at this point I’d say that keeping him in the pen is the right call.

    Other than the Spring Training stats you mentioned in the first paragraph (which I continue to contend are completely meaningless), I thought this was a really good breakdown of the scenario. Hopefully, Parnell’s improved control and new pitch will more than make up for losing a few ticks on the radar gun. Hey, I’ll take 94-97 with some control and deception over 98-101 without any day of the week.

    • Brian Joura
      March 27, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      Certainly our discussion last week is what prompted this article.

      While I was in favor of the Carrasco signing last offseason, to me at this point he is a non-factor in the overall scheme of things. I don’t believe any decision should be based on keeping him or the potential of losing him – and I felt that way before the Madoff resolution.

      • March 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm

        Fair enough. And FWIW, I don’t think it should be based on that either. But it’s certainly a factor. To get Carrasco off the roster, they’d have to release him and eat the $1.2M. If that’s in the best interest of the team, all things considered, so be it. If everyone were healthy, and in light of Parnell’s purported progress, I’d probably have given Carrasco first crack at the long man’s job in April, swallowed the $100K to keep Batista in Buffalo as insurance, rolling the dice that the rotation wouldn’t need a second long man early on, and then made the switch to Batista if Carrasco wasn’t working out. As it is, with Carrasco hurt, Parnell and Batista stay, and if Batista’s cruising when Carrasco’s ready and the rest of the pen is still healthy, then maybe the Mets have to release Carrasco.

        Carrasco was lousy last year. There’s no debating that. But he was effective enough prior to last year, and because he’s being paid with spent money, in a way, he’s free. So for a cash-strapped team, I thought it was worth pursuing (at least as a thought exercise) a way to give him every opportunity to produce some value before admitting defeat, swallowing his contract as a loss, and moving on.

        • Metsense
          March 28, 2012 at 7:53 am

          Schwinden at 25 is a better choice than Batista (too bad Chris didn’t turn the DP yesterday). Carrasco goes on DL then does an extended AAA rehab and at it’s completion the Mets can decide is he worth keeping. Batista goes to AAA at $100K as insurance. At least with Schwinden, if it works out, there is a greater upside. Really, we are talking about the last man in the bullpen on a sub .500 team. Take the chance on Schwinden, it may be his last chance before the young arms in the system pass him by.

          • March 28, 2012 at 10:30 am

            Only thing is that I’m guessing they want to keep Schwinden on a starter’s schedule since he’s probably the first guy called up if they need a starter. I’m not too concerned about this being Schwinden’s last ML shot. There should still be plenty of opportunities in the foreseeable future, whether for a rotation spot or as the long man in the pen. And he still has all his options, so I expect he’ll be around for awhile.

  4. March 27, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I don’t think a guy who’s spent more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues can really benefit from the minors other than rehabbing (either body or mind). Parnell may have some minor room for improvement, but at this point he probably is what he’s going to be. Maybe one day he’ll improve his control and mental focus to be a closer. Otherwise he should be a setup guy or a multi-inning reliever.

    • Metsense
      March 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm

      Mike, I couldn’t agree more. Parnell is added depth to the bullpen, which is a good thing to have. Just because he throws 100 MPH doesn’t make him a closer as Brian’s analysis demonstrates. I hope the Met FO realizes this and when the opportunity arises that Parnell can be used as a trade chip that they pull the trigger to improve the team.

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