Though he hasn’t been around for as long as Mike Pelfrey, the theories about Bobby Parnell’s mental makeup seem to be almost as plentiful. (Pelfrey, by the way, was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award yesterday, which along with his intelligence with a quote goes a long way toward destroying the ridiculous myth that paints him as, basically, this cat.)
Parnell is, as per various theories, not tough enough to close, though perfectly suited to earlier-game work. He isn’t mean enough. He isn’t beardy enough, which as you probably know, isn’t even a word. He lacks grit. He doesn’t know how to put hitters away. He isn’t smart enough to close. He overthinks.
Well, I don’t buy it. Parnell just turned 27. He’s been an effective reliever in 2009, 2010, and for most of 2011. He’s absolutely struggled recently, but the struggles predated the attempt to make him a closer, and as demonstrated again last night, aren’t limited to the ninth.
In 2010, Parnell put up 35 strong innings. His strikeout rate of 8.5/9 was quite good. His walk rate of 2.1/9 was excellent. His xFIP of 2.54 was more than acceptable from a closer.
And in his first 25 outings, comprising 26.2 innings in 2011, he was just as effective. The walk rate went up, to 3.4/9. But so did the strikeout rate, to an elite 11.1/9.
But since July 19, Parnell hasn’t been close to the pitcher he was in 2010 and the first half of 2011. He’s pitched another 28 games- exactly 26.2 innings- and has a 5.40 ERA to show for it. His strikeout rate fell to just over 9/9-still strong-but the walk rate jumped to 5/9. That is unacceptably high, and looks worse when Parnell is allowing so many hits. His career BABIP is at .342, and at .353 this year. That is higher than one would expect- league average is .296 this year- and stayed high despite Parnell dramatically reducing his line drive rate in 2011.
That’s encouraging news, though. In essence, Parnell can become a strong relief pitcher again simply by cutting down his walks a bit. That’s all it will take. Even with high BABIP numbers, he’s still been effective when walking around 3-4 batter per nine- during his downturn, he’s been at 5. His 2010 rate of 2.1/9 isn’t supported by his minor league walk rate, either, but he doesn’t need to be at 2.1/9 to be effective. In fact, it is reasonable to expect those BABIP numbers to come down, walks or no walks, which will only enhance any control-based improvement.
One note of caution, though: it may be that Parnell simply has good streaks and bad streaks. Consider that he had a 1.96 ERA through his first 23 innings back in 2009, a 5.56 ERA over his next 22.2 innings. Though I can’t find a game-by-game breakdown, the reverse occurred in Buffalo in 2010. Parnell started terribly, then pitched well enough to earn a call to New York, where he finished strong.
So where does that leave Parnell for 2012? Well, he just turned 27. He’s got a career xFIP as a reliever of 3.63, including 3.39 in 2011. That 2011 mark places him 49th of 148 relievers with at least 40 innings in 2011. In other words, he isn’t an elite reliever. But he is a long way from terrible.
The question never is, should Parnell be closer or not. It isn’t a binary choice. If not Parnell, someone has to close. And clearly, there are plenty of relievers who wouldn’t be likely to perform as well as Parnell next season, closer or otherwise. But there’s a decent chance the Mets can find someone better, too.
Meanwhile, as he struggles late in the season, let’s not pretend it says anything other than that Parnell sometimes struggles. Look no further than Ryan Madson in Philadelphia, a pitcher talked about as effective but not, somehow, closer material. He’s saved 30 games this year. And unfortunately for the Mets, he’s a much better pitcher than Parnell. And that has nothing to do with role. If the Mets can get a pitcher like Madson, he should close. If not, Parnell is a good bet to be a middling, Leo Nunez-type closer. And when the Mets are ready to contend again, Parnell should be a mid-level bullpen contributor.