Since he first started showing his triple-digit heat for the Mets in 2008, the organization felt that Bobby Parnell had the potential to be their closer at some point. He’s gone through a few ups and downs in the Big Leagues, but after having his best overall season in 2012, the right-handed reliever reported to camp last week with not only a new beard, but a new mentality. At least, he feels comfortable enough to talk about it.
In chatting with Adam Rubin of ESPN New York yesterday, Parnell said his ultimate goal is to be the team’s closer..maybe not this year, but sooner or later. There was never a question as to whether or not Parnell had the potential to be a closer, but whether or not he could harness his God-given ability. In 2012, he started to show he’s starting to put everything together and be more of a pitcher instead of just a thrower. In a career-high 74 appearances last season, he threw 68.2 innings and put together a 5-4 record, 2.49 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and struck out 61 hitters. His K/9 rate dipped from 9.7 in ’11 to 8.0 in ’12, but he virtually cut his BB/9 rate in half from the year before (4.1 in ’11 to 2.6 in ’12), increasing his K/BB ratio to 3.05.
When I finally had the chance to watch Parnell in a live situation last April, I immediately saw a difference in his approach. Instead of just throwing as hard as he could, he was pitching to the situation, using the corners and his secondary pitchers to get the job done. During a year in which the relievers were probably the biggest weakness of the team, I would say Parnell was the most consistent from start to finish.
I was most pleased with not only the increased use of his knuckle-curveball, but his confidence in the pitch during tight situations. I remember one occasion during a home game (against Michael Bourn, I believe) where Parnell had two strikes on a hitter, and dropped in a nasty curveball instead of an expected fastball, leaving him completely fooled. Bobby still threw his fastball just often as he did in 2011 (73.4% vs. 73.7%), but it was the increased control of his fastball and increased confidence of his second pitch that led to him being more productive.
Parnell’s fastball velocity dipped from 97.2 mph to 95.7 mph last year, but as I mentioned before, it’s because he harnessed his control issues and was able to cut his walk rate in half. There were times when I saw him start an at-bat off with a fastball clocking in at 93, but by the end, he ramped it up to 97 or 98. He only reached back to let it loose if he felt like he really needed to, which is a sign of growth and maturity. Also, abandoning his slider from 2011 (87.8 mph) to his knuckle-curve (82.2 mph) created a bigger disparity in velocity and plane of vision, disrupting a hitter’s rhythm. Having more confidence in it also allowed him to see a huge increase in his ground ball percentage (50.6% in ’11 to 61.5% in ’12), which helped his GB/FB ratio balloon up to a healthy 2.86.
All of these things led Terry Collins to feel more comfortable using Parnell in the later innings, while also handing him the closer duties while Frank Francisco was hurt/unproductive last season. Now, he’s projected to share the set-up duties with Brandon Lyon, as they will be the bridge to their $6.5 million man. If he flames out again, the Mets have two viable options to take over the 9th inning, but if all goes well, they’ve also effectively shortened the game to six innings.
So, Parnell may not be the closer for the 2013 season, but neither Lyon or Francisco are under team control for 2014, and Parnell is. This year may very well be the last preparations needed before handing him the reins to become part of team “shut it down,” as they say on Sportscenter.
UPDATE: Now that Francisco has been shut down with elbow inflammation, Collins has told Parnell that he’s first in line to step in. Looks like his time could be sooner rather than later.