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.