Relief ace Bobby Parnell has been working his way back from neck surgery this spring. He’s pitched well, but his pitch velocity is significantly slower than it has been throughout most of his career. He’s still building up arm strength, but can he be as effective a closer for the New York Mets as he was last year?
Parnell has always been a hard thrower. His four-seam fastball has been known to touch 100 mph and will usually sit in the high-90s. His velocity didn’t always translate into success, however. In his first full season (2009), he appeared in 68 games — eight of which were starts — and put up a 5.30 ERA and a bloated 1.66 WHIP. He struck out 7.5 batters per nine innings, which is not a great ratio for a guy who can hit the century mark with his fastball. He pitched better in 2010 and 2011 while becoming a full-time relief pitcher. But the knock on him was he couldn’t perform in high-leverage situations — he had trouble shutting down the opposition in the eighth and ninth innings.
In 2012, he took a major step forward. Under the tutelage of veteran Jason Isringhausen, he learned to throw a knuckle curveball. Not only was it the breaking pitch Parnell had been seeking (his slider had always been inconsistent), but it also provided the change-of-pace he sorely needed. In addition to the curveball, Parnell throttled back his fastball in favor of command. He was better able to locate his four-seamer, and his two-seam fastball developed more movement. All of those adjustments led to a 2.49 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 2012, but it really came together for the right-hander in 2013. In 49 appearances, Parnell saved 22 games, pitched to a 2.16 ERA and a 1.o0 WHIP. He struck out 7.9 batters per nine innings, but became more of a ground ball pitcher, which can be eminently useful when trying to pitch with inherited runners. Still, his fastball was in the high-90s. He pitched his last game of the season on July 30 and ultimately had to have surgery on his neck.
So far in the spring, the somewhat unreliable radar gun at Tradition Field in Port St.Lucie has been clocking Parnell in the high-80s, occasionally touching the low-90s. It stands to reason that he will build up strength and velocity. He had a long layoff following surgery. But until he does, can he be a reliable closer for the Mets? Parnell has learned how to pitch over the past couple of years. He’s no longer reliant on blowing his fastball by batters. He’s learned how to command his fastball and throw his curve for a strike or for a chase. The lack of velocity may hurt him if he makes a mistake, but his command has improved so much that his mistakes have been rare. For those reasons, he should continue to be a reliable stopper for the Mets.