(Bumped from FanPosts. --Eric)
With the 2011 baseball season rapidly approaching, it's not too early to begin looking at the future, at the 2012 season. One of the many questions that will be in the back of everyone's mind has to do with Francisco Rodriguez, and whether or not the player option in his contract vests. With the Alderson regime firmly in power, coupled with the financial woes that the Wipon family seems to be in, I would not be surprised if the organization did not do all that was possible (ie, all that can be done to get away with it, without earning the ire of the MLB Player's Union) to prevent K-Rod's expensive option from activating. Since I don't have a crystal ball, and can't say whether or not it vests or not, for the sake of the discussion, I am going to say that the stars align, K-Rod does not finish 55 or more games, and that he becomes a free agent.
This would leave the Mets without a closer, a position that we know is more style than substance. Regardless, however, the baseball establishment as it exists currently places an emphasis on the closer role. If you don't have a big-time established closer who can shut down the opposition in the 9th, you're in a position of weakness. With K-Rod no longer under contract, the Mets would have to sign one. Looking at the list of projected free agent closers for the 2011 off-season, the list is fairly deep, in terms of players who are already established closers, or players have a limited amount of experience as closers, but can be slotted into the role. Most notable are Danys Baez, Heath Bell, Jonothan Broxton, Matt Capps, Francisco Cordero, Ryan Franklin, Mike Gonzalez, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Damaso Marte, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, George Sherrill, Jose Valverde, Michael Wuertz, and Joel Zumaya. With some of these free agents, it is likely that they are re-signed by their current teams, and don't really test the actual free agent market. Others, either though age or lack of confidence in their skill, will likely be passed over. There exists an intriguing possibility for 2012 Mets closer that allows the team to completely bypass bidding on free agents, however.
"I see myself as a reliever. I'd like to be to be later in the game. The seventh, eighth, ninth inning. [The closer position]'s where I want to be...I would definitely like to help the team in that role." These words were uttered by Robert Alan Parnell- Bobby Parnell- in an interview with John Delcos at the end of January 2011. Certainly, being in a position of importance like that would help his overall baseball legacy, as well as his overall paycheck. How tenable, though, would it be for the Mets to forgo the free agent market completely, and designate Bobby Parnell the team closer?
The first thing that comes to mind when most of us think about Bobby Parnell is that he brings the heat. Looking at his Pitch f/x data for the entire 2010 season, his fastball averaged 96.4 MPH. Looking back to the 2009 season, as a reliever- that is, I am ignoring the time he spent as a starter in the injury-depleted starting rotation- it averaged 95.2 MPH. The zip to his fastball is the reason why he throws it so much- 79.7% of the time in 2009 and 81.3% of the time in 2010. The average speed of his fastball is impressive, to say the least, and ranks among the fastest in the MLB, currently. Parnell's fastball, in both 2009 and 2010, was also fairly straight. In 2010, his fastball had an average of 7.41 inches of vertical movement, and -6.68 inches of horizontal movement. In 2009, his fastball had an average of 9.09 inches of vertical movement, and -6.52 inches of horizontal movement. Fangraph's Pitch Value index gives his 2009 fastball a -4.3 runs above average ranking, and his 2010 fastball a 2.8 ranking.
Let's look at a few other random other relievers- closer and set-up men- who primarily rely on their fastball (throw it about 70% of the time or more), fitting a similar mold to Parnell:
More or less, the difference between Parnell and those other pitchers can be explained twofold: those pitchers have a singular pitch that is extremely good, or those pitchers have larger repertories, with more pitches that are effective. Looking at the first difference, Mariano Rivera, for example, throws his cutter about 80% of the time, just like Parnell throws his four-seam fastball about 80% of the time. Unlike Parnell, however, Rivera has a cutter that is, for a lack of better words, magical, and is regularly ranked 15 or more runs above average by Fangraphs. Parnell, on the other hand, has thrown a fastball that has been up-and-down being judged slightly below average in 2009, and slightly above average in 2010. Looking at the second difference, Neftali Feliz, for example, in addition to his well-above average fastball, throws an above-average slider (Fangraphs has it listed as a curveball, but it's always looked more like a slider to me). Parnell also throws a slider, but unlike Feliz, whose slider has been 3 runs above average, his has been a pedestrian 0.95 runs above average over that same time.
According to Tim Wendell, author of High Heat: The Secret History Of The Fastball And The Improbable Search For The Fastest Pitcher Of All Time (an interesting book I recently finished reading), "scouts refer to the difference between a quality fastball and breaking stuff as range. If the gap between a fastball and the slower deliveries is big enough, then the pitcher has a much better chance for success". Billy Ripkin concurs, having said, "[Batters] can dial up on that heater...If a pitcher can throw in the mid to upper 90s and have another pitch that comes in at 80 to 82 [miles per hour], one that he can throw for strikes, you get that kind of package and a guy is pretty much unhittable".
The other pitches that Bobby Parnell includes in his repertoire includes a slider, and a change-up. He also fooled around with a two-seam fastball, and a cutter, but has literally thrown 20 and 10 of each between April 2009, and October 2010. The slider is Parnell's primary "go to" pitch after his fastball. That doesn't mean that he throws it very often, however. In the 2010 season, he threw the slider only 15.9% of the time. In the 2009 season, looking only at his relief appearances, he threw it 16.6% of the time. Fangraphs grades his slider as above average, though barely- worth 1.3 runs above average in 2009 and 0.7 in 2010.
Seemingly, his biggest problem, with both the fastball and the slider, is getting them over for strikes. Since he debuted as a full-time reliever in 2009, he has thrown his fastball for strikes 62.1% of the time. Interestingly, he has thrown his slider for strikes 64.4% of the time. Parnell threw 1,716 fastballs between April 2009 and October 2010 (this includes his time as a starting pitcher, now), and 1,065 of those fastballs were strikes. That means that 651 of them were called as balls! With the slider, he's thrown 376 sliders, and 240 of them were strikes. That means that 136 of those sliders were called as balls.
In addition, Parnell varies the release point of his fastball and his slider. Generally speaking, as seen below, the release point of his fastball is around five-and-a-half to six-and-a-half feet high, and roughly two to three feet from the strike zone. Parnell releases the slider slightly higher than the fastball, at roughly six to seven feet high, and roughly two to three feet from the strike zone.
If Parnell wants to get a promotion, in terms of what his role in the bullpen is going to be from now on in, he's going to have to address these two specific issues. Personally, not being able to effectively get your primary pitch over often enough for strikes is a major issue, and telescoping (to whatever degree a major league batter can notice a half-foot or so difference in release points) your slightly more accurate secondary pitch makes matters even worse. Until Parnell can conquer these two mountains, he seems more of a thrower than a pitcher. And, even though he's throwing gas, as Eddie Mathews once said, a good hitter "can time a jet coming through the strike zone if [he sees] it often enough".
Overall, though his fastball certainly is fast, I would not feel comfortable with Bobby Parnell as the team's closer, as of right now. Major improvements during the up-coming season might change my opinion, but, as things stand now, the closer market- even if you cross off some of the FA closers or set-up men who are likely to be retained by their current team- is somewhat deep next Winter, and pitchers who inspire me with more confidence than Parnell can be obtained, possibly for relatively cheap.