Mailbag: The Difference Between Bobby Parnell and Craig Kimbrel
As a Met fan displaced in North Carolina, I very much enjoy reading your insights into the club, so please continue the good work.
I wonder if you might provide your thoughts on Bobby Parnell. His inconsistency has been frustrating to say the least. His stuff is great (upper 90s fastball and a hard late-breaking slider, + other off-speed stuff) and it resembles the repertoire of Atlanta’s Kimbrel (but without the success). What my fellow Met fans down here and I can’t understand is why the Met coaches insist on having him locate his fastball ‘down in the zone’. I’ve read them say this several times in the past couple of seasons. It’s clear from watching him pitch that his fastball is essentially a straight pitch when he throws it at the knees, taking away any tailing action he gets when it’s above the belt. Hitters simply drop the bat on these pitches and he gives up more hard hit singles through the infield than any pitcher I’ve seen in a some time. If you look up all of his blown saves (or blown holds), they invariably include several ground ball singles that get through because they are hit so hard. Given the difficulty in hitting an upper-90s fastball when it’s above the belt, why isn’t he using his velocity more to his advantage? And why are Mets coaches insisting he keep the ball down? All of the good closers of the past 30 years that had his kind of velocity (e.g., Gossage, Lee Smith, Papelbon, etc.) have lived up in the zone with their fastballs. What are the Met coaches thinking? Our fear is that they are ruining him (both from a pitching and psychological standpoint) and that he will end up on another team where they will get him doing what he should and he will come back to haunt the Mets. Thanks for any insights you have on this.
Fred, thank you so much for the kind words, and for visiting MetsToday.
I share your observations of, and concerns for, Bobby Parnell. His inability to convert his God-given talent into success is maddening. Are the Mets coaches / organizational pitching philosophy to blame? Perhaps that’s part of it. But in their defense, there is at least one valid reason they urge Parnell to keep the ball down in the zone (assuming that they are, in fact, providing such direction; we only know what’s been stated publicly): because his fastball tends to stay straight as an arrow — and in the middle of the plate — when it’s above the knees, and therefore is easier to hit. In Parnell’s first full year in the Mets bullpen (2009), he gave up 8 homers in 88 IP while hitters enjoyed a .401 slugging percentage against him. Mind you, that homerun rate was about the league average, but you expect someone throwing 100+ MPH to be a little better than average. I think the Mets felt that if Parnell stayed down in the zone, maybe there would be more hits against him, but they’d be less damaging over time (i.e., fewer long balls). Also, it’s easier to get a double play from a ground ball than a long fly.
Further to the point, Parnell does get good movement on his sinking fastball — in the beginning of his pro career, as a starter, his bread-and-butter was that hard sinker that hovered in the 93-95 MPH range. So I don’t necessarily disagree with him using that pitch; the problem is that it seems to be the only pitch he can locate consistently.
Over the past three years, he’s tinkered with a changeup, a forkball, a slider, and a knuckle-curve — all with middling results. But finding an off-speed pitch is only half the story, because the crux of his problem is an inability to command the triple-digit heater.
You suggest that Parnell should be putting that four-seam fastball in the upper strike zone, and you are absolutely right. But it also needs to be intentionally directed at both of the corners, and at varying heights. He would do well to pay attention to Chris Young‘s strategy of moving up and down the ladder; with only an 83-MPH fastball, Young gets swings and misses because he places the ball just high enough, and/or just inside enough, etc.
Additionally — and again, as you suggested — Parnell needs to throw inside. The throwback relievers you mention — Smith and Gossage — OWNED the inside part of the plate. They both had a swagger, and a nasty edge, that put a scary thought into batters’ heads. Therein lies another, what I believe, is a major reason Parnell has not “taken the next step” — batters are comfortable in the box when he’s on the mound.
As Keith Hernandez might say, Parnell needs to work in a little “Junior Senior” and get batters to “move their feet.” That doesn’t mean he needs to intentionally hit people. Rather, it means he needs to throw inside frequently, and, once in a while, not be concerned if a pitch runs a little too far inside. If Parnell would be just slightly wild inside every once in a while, and if he reacted with an emotionless, stone-cold stare, it would plant a seed in each batter’s head: “oh boy, I can’t dig in, there’s a chance one of those pitches will knock me senseless.” Again, no need to actually hit anyone. Do you know how many batters “Nasty Boy” Rob Dibble hit in his seven-year career? Twelve. He faced nearly 2,000 hitters and only a dozen were plunked. Yet, he had a fearsome reputation as a headhunter, and he used that to his advantage. If a batter has even the slightest concern that a 100-MPH fastball is going to collide with his body, the pitcher has an edge.
You mention Craig Kimbrel as a comp, and though Kimbrel has only hit one batter in his young career, he definitely works his fastball inside — we saw him do it to the Mets in that unmentionable series immediately following the All-Star Exhibition. Kimbrel also peppers the edges of each quadrant of the strike zone with his fastball, which has more movement than Parnell’s. When his fastball splits the middle of the plate, it’s either right at knee level or above the hands — the only two places a centrally located fastball at any speed should ever be. Kimbrel also backs up that pitch with a downright filthy slider. So the batter has to worry about two pitches that move quite a bit, and are located randomly. In contrast, against Parnell, hitters can time his fastball and lock in on a location and wait for it to be there.
Considering all of this, what should Bobby Parnell do to become the lights-out closer we all believe is his destiny? Hard to say. If it were up to me, Parnell would spend most of his bullpens firing the four-seam fastball at different spots in the upper-half of the strike zone. As much as I like his knuckle-curve, I might consider ditching it and going back to the slider, but insisting that he throw it to only one spot — down and away to a righthanded batter. Most of his trouble with the slider in the past resulted in Parnell using it as a “get me over” pitch that hung high and in the middle of the plate — and the slider should only be used as a strikeout pitch, off the plate. After he developed true command of the high fastball and the off-plate slider, maybe we’d consider adding other pitches to the repertoire. But with a natural sinker at 93-94 MPH, good command of a 100-MPH fastball, and an occasional slider, Parnell shouldn’t need much else to shut down the opposition in one-inning outings.
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not that easy, but at least it’s a focused plan.