Time is now: Parnell gunning for closer role
Auditioning fireballer, Mets must see command complement speed
SAN DIEGO -- It was May of 2009 and Bobby Parnell was throwing well, noticeably so, better than at any point since converting to a relief pitcher late the previous season. Retiring the Red Sox in order to cap an otherwise uneventful eighth inning at Fenway Park, Parnell strutted back to the visiting dugout feeling strong.
His teammates were waiting.
"Did you see it?" backup catcher Ramon Castro asked Parnell as he took his seat on the bench.
"See what?" Parnell asked.
Castro told him, and Parnell -- the night's adrenaline still coursing through him -- slowly began to realize what he had accomplished.
"Not many guys," he said two years later, recounting the story, "can say they hit 100 miles an hour."
Conceding some margin for error, Parnell can throw a baseball up to 103 mph, faster than just about any other human being on the planet. It is a coveted skill for Major League closers. But, as Parnell has come to learn, it is hardly a prerequisite. More critical are control, command and -- sabermetric theories aside -- a fair bit of mettle, all of which Parnell possesses to various degrees.
Twenty-seven months after Parnell first hit 100 mph at Fenway Park, the Mets have given him an opportunity to seize his dream job as a Major League closer. Though Jason Isringhausen will still receive some ninth-inning opportunities and Pedro Beato may earn a few as well, Isringhausen's 300th career save has prompted the Mets to make a potentially permanent switch. The next six weeks, the organization believes, will be critical in determining whether or not Parnell possesses the abilities necessary to be their closer of the future.
As manager Terry Collins recently put it, "You want to see if he can rise to the occasion."
|"The expectations for a guy like that are, because he throws 100 [mph], he'll never have any kind of problem. It's not realistic."|
|-- Tim Byrdak, on Bobby Parnell|
Each year since, Parnell has improved both his fastball velocity and his strikeout rate -- the former now sitting at 97.1 mph, fourth in the National League; the latter at 11.1 per nine innings, 12th-best in the NL. Throwing fast is important to him. Comerica Park's radar gun once clocked two of Parnell's pitches at 103 mph, part of a sequence of six consecutive triple-digit heaters to Miguel Cabrera. Last August, he threw one at 102.5 mph, the fastest pitch in the Majors up to that point in the season. Inquiring about it days later, a clubhouse visitor mistakenly referred to the pitch as a 102-mph fastball.
"Point-five," Parnell corrected, tacking on the fraction.
Yet fast fastballs, he has come to learn, are hardly accurate predictors of success -- look no further than Parnell's 4.55 career ERA for evidence. Sequences of six straight triple-digit heaters may sound nice in theory, but they are precisely the type of thing that pitching coach Dan Warthen loathes.
"I want to see him over 95 all the time, but I want him to command it," Warthen said. "No matter what, Major League hitters are going to catch up to velocity."
Both Warthen and his hard-throwing pupil know that if Parnell is to stick as a closer, he must develop at least one secondary pitch that he can throw for strikes at will. To that end, Warthen is placing limits on Parnell for the rest of the season, forbidding him from throwing more than a handful of fastballs in succession.
Increasingly, Parnell will need to rely on his high-80s slider and low-90s changeup -- two pitches he has worked diligently to improve in recent years but often abandoned on the mound.
"The big thing is to have confidence in them," Parnell said. "Because the last couple years, I've been getting beat with them."
The importance of committing to secondary pitches is a lesson Parnell first learned during his rookie year, facing the Phillies during the 11th inning of a game in mid-June. Full of confidence from a strong start to the season, he predictably greeted the Phillies with a flurry of fastballs.
When Chase Utley strode to the plate, Parnell did not change course, throwing him a heater that sizzled by untouched. Mistaking inaction for inability, Parnell threw him another, which Utley parked in the seating bowl for a game-winning homer.
"It was kind of like, 'Shoot, I've got to start making some better pitches, show them an offspeed pitch or something,'" Parnell said. "And here we are today."
Where we are is at a career crossroads for a pitcher who must now succeed or risk fading away. Already, Parnell has become a favored target amongst bloggers and drive-time alarmists, many of whom do not believe he deserves a crack at the ninth inning. And perhaps he does not. Lacking better options, the Mets still feel compelled to see what sort of closer he can be.
In the interim, Parnell will do his best to swat aside criticism, just like any closer.
"Playing in New York, you kind of become immune to it, because you hear it every day," he said. "Definitely, some negative things surround us."
"The expectations for a guy like that are, because he throws 100, he'll never have any kind of problem," teammate Tim Byrdak said. "It's not realistic."
What is real, for Parnell, is the opportunity that awaits him. Baseball can be an unforgiving business, with dozens of replacements ready to step in at the slightest sign of weakness. Yet unlike so many of his peers, Parnell has little reason to look over his shoulder. He has been given an opportunity that few Major League pitchers ever enjoy: an uncontested six-week audition at a highly lucrative role.
As a result, he now stands on the cusp of his goals. The Mets already know that Parnell can generate heat. Over the next six weeks, they will be looking to see what else he has to offer.
"If he forces issues a little bit, tries a little too hard, it's because he wants to be the closer of this baseball team," Warthen said. "He's dying to be that."