Bobby Parnell has seized control of the closer’s role for the New York Mets in 2013. The opportunity at hand with the franchise, though, is much greater for him then a single-season stint saving games.
The Mets have not had a homegrown closer since Randy Myers in the late 1980s. Even Myers only held down the role for two seasons, 1988 and 1989, before being shipped to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for John Franco. Before Myers, the last closer The Amazin’s could truly call their own was Tug McGraw.
The man who coined “Ya Gotta Believe” accumulated 86 saves in his nine seasons with the team.
Parnell, a ninth-round selection in the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft by the Mets, is the first farmhand with a real chance to close long-term for the team since McGraw.
He is also setting himself up to be part of the core that will attempt to bring New York out of a six-year-plus run of depressing baseball in Queens.
That core currently includes Matt Harvey, David Wright and Zack Wheeler. If Travis d’Arnaud ever stays healthy, he’ll be a part of it as well.
Can Parnell be a key piece of a team that will attempt to play the part of contender instead of laughingstock pretender starting in 2014 at a position that has primarily been addressed through trades and free agency in the franchise’s 51-year history?
The answer is yes, because the 28-year-old has finally found a closer’s mentality through a pitch to complement his blazing 98-mph fastball.
Parnell’s numbers only tell part of the story of his success so far in 2013. They deserve some recognition, however, since they have been off-the-charts fantastic.
He sports a sub-one ERA and a WHIP that sits at a splendid 0.67. He has allowed only 10 hits in 19.1 innings, and even more impressively, he has yet to allow a home run.
Parnell does have two blown saves in eight chances, but both were the result of poor defense by the Mets.
The second one, on April 29th in Miami against the Marlins, was largely the fault of center fielder Collin Cowgill.
With the Mets leading 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Justin Ruggiano led off with a double for Miami. The next hitter, Rob Brantly, popped up to center field. But Cowgill misplayed the ball, turning a sure out into a single. Instead of the Marlins having a man on second and one out, they were set up with runners on the corners and no outs. Nick Green followed Brantly with a sacrifice fly that tied the game.
Blown saves aside, when you throw in Parnell’s perfect 4-0 record, he has been directly involved in 10 of the Mets' 17 wins.
His sudden ascension into a reliable closer has a lot to do with a newfound confidence in attacking hitters.
Parnell looked scared and unsure of himself in his attempts to save games in 2011 and 2012. He would too often try to fight through the ninth inning by relying almost exclusively on his fastball. His preference to be a thrower and not a pitcher allowed hitters to get a good rhythm against him.
This was a big reason why he failed miserably as a closer the last two seasons, blowing an incredible 11 of 24 save chances.
Parnell started working on a pitch, the knuckle-curve, during 2012 spring training to replace his slider and better complement his fastball.
Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen explains why the knuckle-curve is more effective for Parnell, courtesy of Anthony DiComo at MLB.com:
Pitching coach Dan Warthen said Parnell's fastball has become a more effective weapon due to a greater separation of velocity between it and his breaking ball. Whereas Parnell used to throw his primary breaking pitch in the upper-80s, he now throws his knuckle-curve in the lower 80s. As a result, hitters have a more difficult time adjusting from one pitch to the other.
"The spread of velocity always works," Warthen said. "It's a big difference, a seven- or eight-mile an hour difference."
While the knuckle-curve was effective in improving Parnell’s overall numbers in 2012 compared to 2011, he still seemed reluctant to rely on it in save situations last year.
This season, he has had no such reluctance. Sunday’s last out to seal his sixth save was a great case in point. He struck out pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro, who represented the tying run, on the knuckle-curve. Navarro is certainly a threat to go yard, as he has two pinch-hit home runs on the young season.
Parnell never seemed to believe in his slider. This is probably why he relied too much on his fastball, especially when attempting to seal a win.
Now that he has mastered the knuckle-curve, he appears to have confidence in it as a bona fide complement to his fastball.
As long as Parnell remains friends with the knuckle-curve, he should continue to excel in the closer role. If good health is also in Parnell’s future, there is reason to believe he will be the Mets' man for saves for the next three to five years.
That will make him part of the core—a homegrown piece who will be relied upon to help bring the Mets back into contention.
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