This is a bit overdue: I want to weigh in on the reticence from the New York Mets to install Bobby Parnell as closer.
The reasons that have been given for keeping him out of the role have been twofold:
1. Parnell struggled in the role last year.
2. Parnell has a history of pitching poorly in high-leverage situations.
Both of these are absolutely true. Parnell’s strikeout rate fell from more than 10 per nine to less than 9 per nine last year in save situations, while he walked 14 in 21 1/3 innings. And a look at his career OPS against in low-leverage (.618), medium-leverage (.713) and high-leverage (.857) situations suggests a guy who struggles in the most important spots.
The problem with both of these diagnoses is a simple one: the Bobby Parnell who pitched prior to 2012 is a totally different pitcher than the one pitching now. And the difference is a really important one.
Parnell, through 2011, had an incredible fastball. His velocity averaged 96.5 MPH in 2010, 97.2 in 2011.
But that was his only weapon. He threw a slider that came in above 87 MPH, and the occasional change at around 91 MPH. But he didn’t command either, leading to inflated walk rates, frequently falling behind in the count, allowing hitters to wait for, and time, that fastball.
Would it surprise you to know that Parnell isn’t throwing either the slider or the change this year? Not if you’ve watched him.
Instead, he’s throwing around 75 percent fastballs, with a still-healthy velocity of 94.9 MPH. And around a quarter of the time, he’s throwing a curveball that he is commanding extremely well, and comes in at an average of 82.1 MPH.
Not surprisingly, the results are far better. Parnell averaged 3.7 walks per nine in his career, and 4.1 per nine last season. He’s at 1.4 per nine this year. The strikeouts are as high as ever, 9.6 per nine, and the ERA, a career-low 2.75, might actually be inflated by a high batting average on balls in play.
So would this Parnell struggle in the closer role? It’s hard to say. But it feels odd to assume that when he’s fundamentally changed the pitcher he is, from arsenal to velocity differential to command.
By the way, in high-leverage situations so far this year? He’s allowing a strong .667 OPS. He’s at .444 in medium-leverage situations, and most of the damage against him this year is an .818 OPS in low-leverage situations.
Now, small sample size applies, of course. This is in 19 2/3 innings. But in what evidence we do have, Parnell has been having unprecedented success, and the underlying factors make that success easily explainable.
Frank Francisco appears to have righted the ship, so there’s no current closer crisis. But using Bobby Parnell in the most important situations-which often come in non-closer moments anyway-makes a lot of sense.
Because it sure looks like Bobby Parnell is the team’s best reliever.