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The Curious Case of Manny Parra

Posted By David Golebiewski On December 19, 2009 @ 6:45 pm In Starting Pitchers | 13 Comments

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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