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:
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.