Bobby Parnell hasn’t been pitching long. As he puts it, he “played a position” when he was little, and hit the mound for the first time in college. Because he threw hard, he kept climbing that mound for three years, was drafted, shuttled through the Mets minor league system, and plunked into his role as a late-game reliever in New York.
Some things — like that gas — stayed the same throughout, but there are a few aspects to his game that have weaved in and out of his game as his career has progressed. Now that he’s getting comfortable at the big league level, it’s all coming together.
One thing that has been true of Parnell throughout his career is that he’s paired strikeouts with ground balls. Only 19 qualified relievers have struck out more than eight per nine and given up more than 50% of their contact on the ground since 2009, and Parnell has the third-most innings in that group. “I’ve always considered myself a groundball pitcher,” Parnell told me before a game in San Francisco this week, “I don’t want to give up a mistake up.” He agreed that those mistakes are home runs, so it’s no surprise that he had the fourth-best home run rate in that sample. He rushed to knock on wood when I pointed out he hadn’t given up a home run yet this year, though.
But the first thing that comes to mind with Parnell is the gas. Sometimes called Captain Fastball, he’s hit triple digits on the radar gun often. His average fastball velocity since 2009 (96 mph) ranks eleventh among qualified relievers. Parnell admits that “in years past, it’s been all about velocity.”
“I didn’t pitch in high school,” he told me. “I didn’t pitch when I was little. I played a position. Went to college, and I pitched for three years. All I knew was I threw hard. Didn’t really know what was going on. Got drafted because I threw hard.”
Now Parnell is finally comfortable at the big league level: “I feel like I’m just now getting to who I am day-to-day, and know what I need to succeed and be who I am, and not worry about what’s going to get me to the next level,” he said.
That comfort has allowed him to to slowly branch out beyond the fastball and the velocity that got him to where he is today. Once he only had the fastball, he admits. Then Jason Isringhausen taught him the knuckle curve, and that gave him a second weapon. Now he’s using a split-finger that he hasn’t thrown regularly in two to three years, and it’s giving him another look. The pitch moves away from left-handers, and at 91, offers a third speed for the hitters to think about.
Here’s Parnell throwing the pitch to Pablo Sandoval on Monday. Parnell didn’t think Sandoval even knew he had a splitter.
Getting comfortable with his routine, and his secondary pitches, has also allowed Parnell a different focus on the mound. When asked why he used to come out and throw at a lower velocity for two or three batters before hitting his stride, Parnell disagreed that it was about his warmup routine. Sort of. “My routine was to throw hard,” he said, but added that “I’d come out of the pen throwing hard, but I wouldn’t really know where it was — I’d start placing the pitch with the first batter, and as I found the strike zone, expand from there.” Now? “This year and last year, I don’t worry about my velocity nearly as much. I go out there and get strike one. I try to stay smooth more than anything.”
By the numbers, Parnell is showing his best first-strike rate, and he agrees that’s a focus for him. He’s also finding the zone the most, while retaining his ability to get ground balls and swinging strikeouts. Some of that is thanks to the velocity and down-ball focus he’s always had. But some of that is also due to the comfort he’s found on the mound and in the big leagues, and his ability to branch out beyond the gas that first made him Captain Fastball.
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