The Curious Case of Manny Parra

Catch Brewers southpaw Manny Parra on a good day, and you’ll come away highly impressed. Low-90′s velocity, a quality curve and a sweet changeup/splitter? Maybe, you think, the Brewers’ rotation can amount to more than Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and “staff.”

But take in a Parra start when he’s having an off day, and you’ll be convinced that he’s taking pitching lessons from Charlie Brown. Walks and hits pile up with such rapidity that the official scorer gets carpal tunnel.

Parra was Milwaukee’s 26th round pick in the 2001 amateur draft, but don’t let that fool you. He was a draft-and-follow selection who pitched for American River Junior College in 2002, eventually inking with the Brewers for a cool $1.55 million bonus. Parra cobbled together a superb minor league track record, punching out 8.6 batters per nine frames with 2.5 BB/9.

Injuries, however, threatened to put the skids on his burgeoning career. Parra strained a pectoral muscle in 2003, missed a big chunk of the 2004 campaign with shoulder weakness and was shelved in July of 2005 with more shoulder troubles. Baseball America noted that Parra would “over-rotate in his delivery, slowing his arm down,” which led to “nagging injuries.” The 6-3 lefty went under the knife to repair a damaged rotator cuff in August of 2005.

Though all of those ailments put him behind the development curve, Parra’s stuff remained tantalizing. BA ranked him the second-best prospect in Milwaukee’s system prior to 2008, following a 2007 season in which he aced AA and AAA (a combined 8.9 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 in 106.2 IP, with a perfect game in AAA for good measure) while making his big league debut. Parra did suffer a broken thumb on a bunt attempt with the Brewers, but there weren’t any long-term consequences.

Given a chance to make 29 starts and three relief appearances for the Brewers in 2008, Parra whiffed 7.97 batters per nine innings while issuing 4.07 BB/9. He posted a 4.39 ERA, but his xFIP (3.85) was even more encouraging. Parra’s 78.2% contact rate was below the 80.8% MLB average, and he burned worms with a 51.6 GB%.

Manny needed to do a better job of not falling prey to hitter’s counts, as his 55.1 first-pitch strike percentage fell well short of the 58.6% big league average. But with better luck (his BABIP was .337, and his HR/FB% was 13.5), it was easy to envision Parra emerging as a strong sidekick to Gallardo.

Last offseason, former Rotographs contributor Peter Bendix wrote a glowing assessment of Parra’s talents. Here’s the money quote:

Parra is exactly the type of pitcher you should be targeting for 2009. He is a good bet for improvement for two reasons: he suffered from bad luck in 2008 – a high HR/FB and a very-high BABIP – so he figures to improve upon his ERA simply due to regression to the mean; and he is also a good bet to improve in his actual skill, due to his track record and age.

A combination of improvement and regression should lead to Manny Parra being a steal in 2009.

Instead of improving in 2009, Parra compiled an ERA (6.36) that made Jeff Suppan Braden Looper blush. Parra was demoted to AAA Nashville from late June to early July. What in the name of Bernie Brewer happened?

In 140 frames, Parra whiffed 7.46 hitters per nine innings. His contact rate (79.6%) was a bit higher than in 2008. Plus, his swinging strike rate fell from an excellent 9.3% in ’08 to a still-solid 8.6% in 2009 (the MLB average for starters is 7.8%). Those figures help to explain the modest dip in his K rate.

Despite throwing more first pitch strikes (57.4 percent) and locating more of his pitches within the strike zone (49.5% in ’09, compared to 48.9% in ’08), Parra handed out 4.95 free passes per nine frames. Perhaps his outside swing percentage explains part of the increase, as it fell from 23.4 percent in 2008 to 22.2 percent this past year (25% MLB average). Though he didn’t get quite as many grounders, Parra still managed an above-average 48.1 GB%.

While clearly not pitching as well as he did in 2008, Parra’s xFIP (4.64) suggests that he also wasn’t the total pitching pinata that his ERA would suggest. His BABIP was obscenely high at .365, and his rate of stranding runners on base (64.7 percent) was below his career 68.3 percent mark.

What are we to make of Parra at this point? In 332.1 major league innings, his BABIP is a whopping .349. His xFIP (4.23) is nearly a full run lower than his actual 5.17 ERA.

There’s nothing in Parra’ batted ball profile that immediately jumps out. His career line drive rate is 20.3 percent. He is a groundball-slanted pitcher. Grounders do have a higher BABIP than fly balls.

But Parra’s career numbers on grounders are incredibly poor:

Parra’s career BAVG on groundballs: .290
Parra’s career SLG% on groundballs: .323

NL BAVG on groundballs, 2007-2009: .237
NL SLG% on groundballs, 2007-2009: .258

Parra’s batting average on grounders is 22 percent higher than the NL average, and his slugging percentage is 25 percent higher than the NL norm.

To be honest, I’m not sure what’s going on here. In its 2006 prospect handbook, Baseball America mentioned that Parra had a proclivity to throw “fat strikes,” leaving him “far more hittable than his stuff should allow.” Manny’s career BABIP in the minors was .321. BABIP figures tend to be higher in the minors, due to a lower level of defensive skill. But that’s still pretty high.

Despite all of the struggles, Parra’s curveball (+0.37 runs per 100 pitches), changeup (+0.39) and splitter (+1.48) actually rate as above-average pitches to this point. His fastball, though? Let’s just say Charlie Brown’s heat gets scorched less often.

Parra’s career run value with his fastball is -1.58 per 100 tosses. That’s fourth-worst among pitchers with 200+ IP over the past three years. When your heater’s effectiveness rates between that of Brandon Backe and Matt Morris, you have a problem.

Batters just don’t swing and miss much against the pitch. According to Joe Lefkwitz’s Pitch F/X Tool, Parra’s whiff rate with his four-seam fastball was 4.6 percent in 2009. The MLB average whiff rate for lefty four-seamers, by contrast, was 6.1 percent.

Does Parra throw “fat” strikes? I’m no Pitch F/X maestro, but I did my best to try and quantify what might constitute a fat pitch. Pitch F/X keeps track of a number called “px.” Here’s Mike Fast’s definition:

px: the left/right distance, in feet, of the pitch from the middle of the plate as it crossed home plate. The PITCHf/x coordinate system is oriented to the catcher’s/umpire’s perspective, with distances to the right being positive and to the left being negative.

Home plate is about two feet across. I classified pitches that were five inches to either side of the middle of the plate as “fat” pitches (I got the idea from Pitch F/X guru Harry Pavlidis , who does something similar). Here’s what I got:

MLB average “fat” percentage for lefty four-seam fastballs: 35.1%
Parra’s “fat” percentage for four-seam fastballs: 38.5%

Manny does seem to leave his heater down the middle more often than most. Parra is a good example of simple velocity not being everything for a pitcher: he sits at 92 MPH with his fastball, but gets few whiffs and tends to catch too much of the plate.

At this point, Manny Parra is a mystery wrapped in an enigma stuffed in a Chorizo. Here are his projections for the 2010 season (Parra, not the Chorizo):

CHONE: 159 IP, 7.3 K/9, 4.19 BB/9, 0.96 HR/9, 4.81 ERA
Bill James: 147 IP, 7.96 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 4.59 ERA

Now 27, Parra has the skill set to be a mid-rotation starter, perhaps with a little upside. But he’s going to have to do a better job of locating his fastball in order to succeed. His surface numbers in 2009 are abysmal, but don’t totally write him off. With better location and a little luck, he could be a decent bargain in 2010.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


13 Responses to “The Curious Case of Manny Parra”

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  1. Ender says:

    He has some problems pitching from the stretch which explains the LOB% some.

    Macha tried to get him to move to a slide step but it seemed to just make things worse.

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  2. circlechange11 says:

    DG,

    Great article. As a former LHP, current pitching coach, and career stats addict … I’m practically foaming at the mouth with the information you presented. *Deep Breath* Well done, brother.

    As I was reading the information regardinf his vBABIP, my first thought was “he’s a barrell hitter” (i.e., he misses “in the zone too often” or “doesn;t pitch to the corners enough”.

    Then you presented the pitch location information and that seems to be the case.

    As to what Manny can do …

    [1] Move his plant foot on the rubber — This is most basic thing he can do. I don;t know where he places his plant/left foot, but if he’s on the 3rd base side of the strip, then his release point is likely “right down the middle”, leading to him throwing some ‘straight arrows’. He could move right or left on the rubber, and not change anything else, and *maybe* change the final location of his fastballs.

    [2] Screw the 4-seamer. He could go with a 2-seamer and from the grip alone, get *some* movement. He could use finger pressre to get movement both left (pressure on index finger) or right (pressur on middle finger), or simply just slide both fingers to straddle the left seam (move right) or the right seam (move left), depending on what he is comfortable with.

    Whatever the case, when a pitcher’s BABIP is high, more than be ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’, it’s (IMO) more of a result of batters hitting the ball hard or not. Obviusly hard ground balls (solid contact) are going to be harder to field and go for more hits than weaker contact (slower ground balls).

    His BABIP, compared to other MIL starters, is MUCH higher … so, I don’t think one can just chalk it up to poor defense or bad luck. Rather, Manny is allowing much more solid contact OR opponents are just that much better making good contact against LHPs (both are possible).

    I have never coached an MLB pitcher, but if I were working with him, I’d try and get him to do the things I typed earlier, and expect him to “John Tudor” (or Tommy Glavine, if you will) the outside corner (vRHB) all day long and force them to either hit the ball the other way or (more likely) pull the ball to the left side (3B, SS) more often with less contact. Whether he can do that, or learn to do that, is unknown. But what is evident, is that he currently does not have the ability to pitch successfully, throwing his 4-seamer too much over the plate.

    I think all most casual fans know of Parra is that Prince was going to beat his @$$ in the dugout one time, after parra gave up a big lead …. which, makes me wonder if he’s a bit of a flake (non-thinker). He could also be a “pitch tipper” or something else. I don;t (from memory) know how he brings the ball back and up into position, but he could be showing his grip far too early.

    I’ll certainly be watching him this year, due to your article, to see what he is doing or what he could be doing. Maybe some MIL fans can chime in, and help us out with what seemingly “goes wrong” during the games.

    Again, thanks for the article. Beautiful stuff.

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    • Ender says:

      BABIP should be compared to a players career rate and when you do that 90% of the time it is just a luck based stat. There are also certain levels where it can live long term and if you exceed those you probably had bad luck. If you are getting hit hard it shows everywhere, you don’t K as many, you give up more HR etc, it doesn’t generally just show up in BABIP.

      In Parra’s case his sample is too small to really know where his BABIP should be, but I have a hard time saying that a .365 doesn’t have at least a little bad luck involved.

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  3. kcscoliny says:

    Sounds like he’ll be Dave Duncan’s next Genius turnaround.

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  4. Scorch says:

    If there was a stat for pitchers that throw the wrong pitch at the wrong time, he would rate among the leagues best (worst). Parra is definately a non thinker, and when got paired with Brewer backup catchers not named Jason Kendell he would struggle. Throwing 1-2 fastballs down the cobb, or other obvious no strike situations. He definately has flaws beyond his pedestrian fastball, but as the above stated, hopefully good coaching can turn his career around. Randy Wolfe, Yovani and Parra is definately a lot better than Randy Yo and anyone else.

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    • No Homer says:

      Parra has pitched worse with Kendall than with the other three catchers he’s had in the majors.
      Over 991 PAs, Parra has an .834 OPS against with Kendall. With Mike Rivera (421 PA), he has a .763 OPS against. While we’re dealing with sample size issues here, this does kinda show that Kendall’s reputation as a “game manager” is overblown. He’s probably the main reason Gallardo wasn’t an elite pitcher this year. I can’t tell you how many times he’d get ahead 0-2, and Kendall would try to get the guy to chase 3 pitches in a row. Then we’re standing at 3-2. Seeing as Gallardo doesn’t have pinpoint control, he’d miss that last pitch a decent amount of the time. It truly was frustrating to watch.

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  5. Great article; Parra’s just a frustrating player like Jonathan Sanchez. Too many walks at the wrong times in the majors, but all the potential in the world. I love the guys of his type like Ubaldo Jimenez, Sanchez, Brandon Morrow and Andrew Miller, but the walks make them high risk despite the high reward. Sadly, you cannot draft all five of these guys and package a quality producing team, but hell, with your last draft pick, any one makes a great upside guy.

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  6. Eno Sarris says:

    Well done David G! A great read.

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  7. jirish says:

    You can look at all kind of stats, and not quite figure out what’s up with Parra. It may simply be that the injuries he’s worked through has sapped his ability to command his pitches. He surely has enough talent to eventually work through it. I know I’d be reluctant to give up on him. Then again, how long is it going to take him to figure it out?

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  8. No Homer says:

    Hey Dave, I was wondering if you could answer a question for me. What do you make of a team’s HR/FB?
    The Brewers as a team had a 12.0% HR/FB last year, highest in the majors. And, just for reference, here are the numbers for their top 5 starters, with their career HR/FB in parentheses.

    1. Yovani Gallardo: 12.3% (9.9%)
    2. Manny Parra: 12.1% (11.8%)
    3. Dave Bush: 12.0% (11.7%)
    4. Jeff Suppan: 13.4% (11.8%)
    5. Braden Looper: 15.8% (11.3%)

    So, what would you attribute the high HR/FB’s to? It’s probably not Miller Park. So, is it pitcher skill? Pitching coach? Pitch calls by the catcher? Or maybe just sheer dumb luck?

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  9. David Golebiewski says:

    No Homer,

    When a pitcher’s HR/FB percentage strays really far one way or another from that 11-12% average, I would expect at least some regression toward the mean. That is an interesting trend with Milwaukee’s rotation, but the career averages for all but Gallardo are right around the league average.

    Dan Turkenkopf compiled a HR/FB park factor for each stadium last month:

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/blog_article/hr-fb-park-factors/

    Miller Park does appear to inflate homers per fly ball hit- eight percent above a neutral park in 2009 and six percent over the past four seasons. A pitcher’s home ballpark can certainly make a difference in HR/FB rate. That’s why I’m a fan of xFIP, which uses a normalized HR/FB rate.

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  10. Bernie Brewer says:

    This really was masterful analysis of Parra. As a full time Brewer fan and part time scouting enthusiast, I must say your breakdown did capture Parra.

    Let me add as a Brewer fan that probably has watched most of Parra’s starts. Manny Parra is indeed a flake. He is mentally fragile. The casual fan can pick this up just after watching a few Parra starts. This is something that I don’t think the data will be able to isolate, although you nearly did just that.

    Parra’s stuff and even stats point to a better pitcher than what is reality. Here is where I think scouting provides invaluable insight.

    When Parra is frustrated, which is often, he seems to get hammered. It reminds me of HS football…..players that play tentative, get hurt. This is true of Parra. Your observation of Prince laying out Parra is correct. Prince grew up around the game so you can safely assume he has an old school approach and innate deep knowledge of the game. Parra’s a baby and Prince won’t stand for babies.

    If Parra can grow up then I think he can turn it around. Until then, his talent won’t ever add up. Sadly I’d expect it will take a trade to get Parra to snap out of it.

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  11. BMS says:

    Having watched Parra pitch numerous times, he’s definitely the anti-Maddux. But one thing my eyes tell me is that he has serious issues pitching out of the stretch. I’d be curious if the numbers bear that out, for him and for other guys who are prone to big innings and who have low strand rates.

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