A Case Against Bobby Parnell

Bobby Parnell gives up a lot of hard contact for a strikeout pitcher. Toby and I discussed this on the Mostly Mets podcast last week, but it seems relevant with the Mets’ bullpen pecking order about to be rearranged.

Among high strikeout relief pitchers — pitchers with at least eight Ks per nine innings pitched — over the past four years, these are the dudes with the highest batting average against:

Rk Player BA SO/9 IP Age G ERA ERA+ Tm
1 Kevin Jepsen .281 8.13 135.0 23-26 147 4.73 89 LAA
2 Bobby Parnell .277 8.24 153.0 23-26 138 4.35 92 NYM
3 Boone Logan .269 8.09 121.1 23-26 159 4.38 100 CHW-ATL-NYY
4 Aaron Heilman .266 8.23 254.2 29-32 249 4.88 88 NYM-CHC-ARI
5 Bobby Seay .266 8.14 105.0 30-31 127 4.37 104 DET
6 Wesley Wright .262 8.98 133.1 23-25 134 5.33 77 HOU
7 Jeff Fulchino .261 8.16 171.0 28-31 153 4.68 86 KCR-HOU
8 Pedro Feliciano .261 8.47 175.1 31-33 266 3.44 119 NYM
9 Kyle Farnsworth .259 8.59 198.0 32-35 201 3.68 115 TOT-KCR-TBR
10 Denny Bautista .258 8.61 107.2 25-27 96 4.76 89 TOT-PIT-SFG
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/14/2011.

You might have guessed a couple of names on that list.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that 100 innings really isn’t a large sample size, and probably not enough for something like batting average against to stabilize — in other words, this list may have a lot more to do with bad luck than bad pitching. If you think pitchers have no control over balls in play, you probably agree with this. Parnell has the second highest batting average against on balls in play (BABIP) in the same group, and Jepsen is first. I’m not sure how much is luck and how much is skill, and arguing that it’s mostly luck is fair enough. Please don’t revoke my nerd license; I need it to see the new Harry Potter film.

But the other way to look at this is that pitcher do have some control over their batting average against on balls in play. Not as much as some might think — it’s not like hitters hit .400 on balls in play against bad pitchers and .200 against good ones; it’s probably closer to .270 for good pitchers and .320 for bad ones, and those are the extremes. Other factors are at play, too, with fly ball pitchers having lower BABIP and ground ball pitchers higher. But a pitcher’s batting average against on balls in play does reflect his skill on some level, and, so far, Bobby Parnell’s suggests that he can get hit pretty hard.

153 innings isn’t that many. But this isn’t something that’s afflicted Parnell only in the major leagues. In 2007, Single-A hitters batted .364 on balls in play against Parnell, and Double-A hitters batted .322 on balls in play. In Triple-A in 2008, Parnell’s BABIP against was .403. Check it out yourself, via Fangraphs:

There have been some years where his BABIP against hovered closer to the .290 range, but it’s never been lower than .289 in any extended stretch. It could be a string of bad luck. But watching him pitch, it certainly seems that there are stretches when Parnell’s fastball doesn’t have much life and hitters just square it up. He throws hard, and sometimes his fastball has that Greg Maddux/Livan Hernandez, come-back-inside-on-righties movement. Parnell looks unhittable when that happens. But other times his fastball is just straight and lifeless, the sort of thing a major league hitter can handle. The velocity explains the high strikeout numbers, but a lack of movement would lead to a high batting average against in spite of the strikeouts.

Maybe I’m wrong here, and I’d be happy if Parnell proves as much. But Bobby Parnell might not be as effective as his strikeout, walk, and home run numbers suggest, and that should be something for the Mets to consider as they rearrange the bullpen.

Amended at 8:15: You know what? I was wrong and I’ve changed my mind. mrbmc — I assume this is not his real name — pointed out in the comments section below that Heath Bell was hammered with the Mets, with a really high BABIP in the major leagues, before becoming a great reliever with the Padres. So I compared his minor league stats with Bobby Parnell’s. Here’s what I got:

Heath Bell, BABIP in the minors: .309 in 468.1 innings.
Bobby Parnell, BABIP in the minors: .304 in 520.2 innings.

I did these quickly by hand — (Hits – HR) / (Total Batters Faced – HR – BB – K – HBP) — so a handful of sac bunts might have sneaked in there. Dock me points for accuracy. But the overall point is that Parnell and Bell posted similar BABIP in the minors, before struggling in the majors and giving up a lot of hits. Maybe it’s crappy luck, maybe it’s something else that happens when a pitcher adjusts to the big leagues. But Bell’s BABIP came down after a while, and it’s not unreasonable to expect the same to happen with Parnell.

But this little nugget of info gives me more hope for Parnell. I recant my earlier statement. He’ll probably be fine, and I’d guess his BABIP eventually settles in around .305.


Filed under Mets, Words

16 responses to “A Case Against Bobby Parnell

  1. He does give up lots of hits, but not many go for extra bases. Only one double and two homers allowed this year (thanks Tulo!). He has a pretty good ability to suppress XBHs. Some of that has to do with his GB%, but still… that’s a positive that you didn’t bring up.

    Otherwise, solid work here.

    • Patrick Flood

      Right, yeah, ground balls don’t turn into extra base hits that often. Good pickup, and the sort of benefit of being a high-K ground ball guy.

      • And it would explain why, depending on the defense he’s pitching in front of, or depending on his luck, his BABIP might fluctuate more than some other pitchers’ would.

      • Parnell’s IsoP in 2010 (.058) and 2011 (.073) are excellent. K-Rod, for example, was at .095 and .127, respectively. Though it’s a small sample, you would expect the power numbers to be similar this year because of their similar GB% (K-Rod has a career high 51.7% this year). Yet, K-Rod is allowing much harder contact.

  2. I’m surprised you would write this without mentioning what is average for BABIP. Hint: It’s about .300. So saying that a guy’s has “never been below .289” doesn’t tell us very much.

    • Yeah. Most people reading Patrick’s blog would probably know what the average BABIP is.

      I’m not even sure how much value is in Parnell’s minor league BABIP’s because he was mostly a starter at that time.

      If y’all remember Heath Bell had really high BABIP’s his first few years in the league despite good strikeout rates. This is not something that Parnell can’t and won’t improve upon. In fact, it’s probably a combination of fluke and inconsistent command.

    • Patrick Flood

      In my petty defense, I did say that the range for all pitchers is somewhere between .270 and .320, and I would guess 95% of pitchers career numbers eventually settle in there.

      But, yes, the average BABIP is close to .290 for most of baseball history; it’s .292 this season, .297 last season, .299 the year before that. Thanks for the hint.

  3. Heath Bell used to get HAMMERED when he was a Met. Extremely high BABIP and line drive rates.


    Just sayin’.

    • Patrick Flood

      Okay, I see your point. Bell’s career BABIP is .305, which is probably normal for a slight ground ball pitcher.

      Doing this out by hand — (hits – HR) / (total batters faced – K – BB – HR – HBP) — Bell had a .309 BABIP in the minor leagues. Parnell’s BABIP is .304 in the minors.

      You know what? This changes my mind. That right where it should be for a Parnell type pitcher. I’ll amend the post.

  4. I’ll admit that I have never really been a fan of Parnell. He hasnt really developed the secondary pitches or the type of control I think necessary to consistently succeed in high-leverage situations. Thats without factoring the mythical psychological “edge” that good closers are required to have.

    I just remember that when the Mets still wanted to use him as a starter, he refused to go down to play winter ball during the offseason, preferring to stay as a reliever and take the offseason, well, off. Now, he might have been a bit banged up or just exhausted after a long season, but to me it just signified a lack of passion or “heart” or whatever for the game. I just found it a bit off-putting that one of the Mets few decent pitchers back then, someone that the Mets and the media probably would have lauded with the kind of stuff that he had, had no desire to try to improve his craft and make it as a starter.

    So what I’m trying to ramble about here is this – the numbers say he can be a decent pitcher, but as Patrick alluded to above, there are plenty of numbers that say that we don’t have the full story on Parnell. I’d be wary about fully entrusting in him with the game on the line.

    • I disagree regarding the secondary pitches. He has used his slider much more this year and to greater success as well. He is still relatively young and if still improving his breaking ball he has the potential to be a very good RP and already is an above average one as it stands now.

  5. I think Parnell is coming along. To a large degree, you can throw out minor league stats when it comes to relief pitchers.

  6. I really dont think we need to make a “case” for or against Parnell at this point. It’s not like the mets are trying to decide wether to acquire the guy. He’s on the team, and cheap for the next few years, so simply let him pitch and let the results settle the “case”.

  7. 2 things:
    1. mrbmc is a nickname not an alias.

    2. just saw Aaron hellman on the high babip list. he sucked. he’d get ahead with his 2-seamer and his don drysdale delivery. but then he’d throw a slider 3 feet outside, twice, then bounce a 40 foot change up to fill the count. on 3-2 he’d layup his fastball and get creamed. why waste an 0-2 count? MLB batters never chase that junk. throw a strike while the batter is defensive! see also pelfrey, mike.

  8. If you are hard but straight you can get bopped. Improved command is what Parnell needs. He does not throw a heavy ball.

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