With Frank Francisco working very slowly back from elbow soreness, presumably an effect of the surgery he underwent in December to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow, the Mets closer going into Opening Day will be Bobby Parnell.
The 28 year-old right-hander will be getting his first long-term shot at the closer role. He has been given some time in August and September over the last few years in the role, but he has never been “the guy” from the get go. This will be his last real opportunity to prove that he is more than a hard-throwing middle-innings relief pitcher.
Parnell is coming off the best season of his career, one that saw him drop his ERA to a career-best 2.49 mark in 68.2 innings pitched, a heavier workload than he has had to deal with in years past. His strikeout rate went down from 9.7 K/9 in 2011 to 8.0 last year. That’s still above league average, and slightly below his career average. However, he dropped his walk rate from a sub-par 4.1 BB/9 to a very solid 2.6 rate.
The key for Parnell has always been being a pitcher rather than just a thrower. Last season, he changed speeds on his fastball much more effectively than before and was finally able to find a breaking pitch that worked for him. Those two things were the key to his success last season, and we’ve only seen more of that in the spring. His control issues seem to be a thing of the past as well, and Parnell is much more consistent with his command than we have ever seen from him.
There is one issue that has gone unanswered from Parnell, however, and it is the most important one: can he handle the closer role? While he hasn’t been put in the spot long-term ever in his career, he has thus far struggled in those situations. His numbers are significantly worse in save situations over his career. In 87 save situations, he has a 4.54 ERA with 31 walks in 73.1 innings. That’s compared to his 2.45 ERA and much lower walk rate in 146.2 innings in non-save situations. Parnell thus far, has shown that mentally, he cannot handle the ninth inning role. The pressure has been a little too much for him, and quite frankly, it has shown in some of his post-game comments after games.
While a full spring of preparations for becoming a closer will help him a little bit, it is hard to predict how Parnell will adjust mentally to the new role. The switch may seem insignificant to some pitchers, but others sometimes wilt under the pressure. He has improved as a pitcher over the past few seasons, especially last season, so I don’t think he will pitch as badly as his career stats in save situations would suggest, but until I see proof that he can perform under the pressure in the ninth, I don’t think Parnell can reproduce last year’s excellent statistics.