Have no fear -- Parnell can pitch in the ninth
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Bobby Parnell is ready to take the reins as the man in the ninth inning for the Mets. The team is ready to hand those reins to him. Mets fans, though you may not believe it, this is good news.
Parnell is the best reliever the Mets have. His reconfigured arsenal benefited the right-hander greatly in 2012, and he's ready to take whatever is thrown at him in 2013.
For as long as Frank Francisco is unavailable, Parnell will close games for New York. With any luck, he'll hold onto the job even when Francisco is healthy and ready to pitch.
Parnell is already preparing for the job. He's asked to pitch the ninth inning of Spring Training games, which is unusual for late-inning relievers. Typically, they work earlier in games in the spring, so that they can see the opposition's best hitters. Instead, Parnell wants to get used to the rhythms of getting the ball in the ninth.
Saturday marked his first time this spring pitching back-to-back days, and it mostly went well. He allowed a run on two hits, but one of the hits was a soft rolling groundball, and the run was unearned thanks to an error.
"We won, didn't we? [So] it's positive," Parnell said. "That's all that matters."
Parnell has never been a full-time closer, and there's a notion that he's not quite cut out for it. The data suggest that that's a myth. Parnell actually pitched better in save situations than non-save situations last year. He had a higher strikeout rate, a lower walk rate and a lower home run rate when he pitched in save situations.
More important though is that Parnell has the skill set to pitch at any point in a game. He gets right- and left-handed batters out. He throws hard, and complements his heat with an effective curveball. Parnell has swing-and-miss stuff and plenty of command.
"The same guy that throws really well in the seventh is the guy that should pitch in the ninth," said pitching coach Dan Warthen. "That's basically what you try to [do], and I think he found that, instead of trying to do more."
One thing Parnell found in 2012 was efficiency. He managed career-bests in pitches per inning and pitches per plate appearance. That may well have been related to his bagging a not-very-effective slider in favor of a curveball he learned from former Mets pitcher Jason Isringhausen. Whatever the reason, efficiency will be key for Parnell when he needs to pitch multiple games in a row.
"We all know he can throw 100, but we want him to be able to get those easy outs," said manager Terry Collins. "If you've got to throw 25 pitches a night at 100 miles an hour, he's not going to be able to be used many nights in a row. And if you're going to be used at the back end, you've got to be out there three or four [consecutive days]."
He also has the advantage of not being vulnerable to lefties, which is critical for a closer. Setup relievers can sometimes shift from the eighth to the seventh or vice versa in order to see same-side hitters. When you're the closer, in the modern game, you're going to pitch the ninth regardless of whether the opponents hit left-handed or right-handed.
Parnell has come a long way in that regard, to the point that he had very little platoon split in 2011 or 2012. He was also effective on zero days' rest, another key component of being a ninth-inning pitcher.
In every area but experience, Parnell has what it takes to be a closer. Now he's going to start getting that experience.
So, Mets fans, when you're making your worry lists, put the ninth inning near the bottom. There are certainly reasons to be concerned about the '13 Mets -- Johan Santana's health, the outfield, even the rest of the bullpen. But putting the ninth inning in Parnell's hands isn't one of them. If anything, it's an opportunity for something quite good to happen.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.