Bobby Parnell: More Than Captain Fastball

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.

ParnellSF

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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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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Rick
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Rick
3 years 2 months ago

I watch the Mets every day and I had no idea that Parnell throws a splitter…

BurleighGrimes
Guest
BurleighGrimes
3 years 2 months ago

Neither did Gary, Keith, and Ron, who in Parnell’s last couple of appearances were confused about the pitch, which looked to them to be changeups.

chri521
Member
3 years 2 months ago

Is this a John Woo movie? See that white bird fly by in slo mo? Awesome Eno.

Dylan
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Dylan
3 years 2 months ago

I think we underrate the value of veterans on a team. It’s easy to make fun of them because of how much announcers talk about being scrappy and just knowing how to win, etc., but it really is helpful to have a guy like Isringhausen who is able to teach a young pitcher. That knuckle curve changed Parnell’s career.

Ceetar
Guest
3 years 2 months ago

I’ve always been a little concerned that it took a veteran to come in and teach him a new pitch in his spare time for him to learn a new pitcher..aren’t there others in the organization that could’ve done that?

But certainly speaks to how fleeting major league success can be. Izzy never re-signs with the Mets and Parnell might never be more than a middling reliever that throws hard.

Dave C
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Dave C
3 years 2 months ago

A knuckle curve is a very specialized pitch, and one that few pitchers throw. Parnell previously threw a slider that used to back up on him quite a bit. This is a case of trying out a new grip and finding better results on a breaking pitch- this happens quite often.

Parnell actually didn’t even use the knuckle curve regularly until the season AFTER Izzy left the Mets because he wasn’t comfortable with it until the following spring training.

Billy
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Billy
3 years 2 months ago

I think the reason us sabermetrician types tend to undermine things like veteran experience and clubhouse presence is not because those things don’t exist or matter, but because they are not very accurately portrayed. It seems announcers and baseball insiders throw these terms around somewhat liberally. How often do various sources say how great a guy this player or that player is? If this were to be belived, MLB must be full of saints. And while I’m sure there are plenty of great guys with wonderful work ethic in the sport, I doubt it’s THAT rosy of a picture. I’m only 28 years old, but I’ve been on this planet long enough to realize how big a difference helpful individuals can make, so I believe these things are out there and they are factors in player performance (often significantly so). It’s just that we as people who are not actually in the clubhouse and don’t know these men personally have a tough time understanding it since this information probably does not reach us in a very accurate way.

Dylan
Guest
Dylan
3 years 2 months ago

That’s true. And there’s merit to that argument. But I don’t think going to the extreme on one side, as people so often do, is much better than going to the extreme on the other side. If anything, it STRENGTHENS the other arguments, because people can say, “See, Bobby Parnell wouldn’t be successful without Izzy, therefore x, y, and z are true and David Eckstein is the greatest player ever.”

Obviously, not everybody is guilty of that. But let’s recognize the value we’re missing. We’re missing clutch play (although we’re getting better at that), we’re missing veteran impact, and we’re missing a lot about context, and we need to stop criticizing the other guys for missing those things on to the other extreme.

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