Before he throws a pitch, Angels reliever Blake Parker brings his left foot incrementally closer to the rubber; like a zip-tie locking into place, tightening over one ridge at a time. He rocks back and forth until settled enough to begin his delivery. It’s a unique routine.
Parker’s pre-pitch setup is not unlike his career: a gradual build. With the Cubs in 2012, 2013, and 2014, he spent time in both Triple-A and the majors before being released in May of 2015 while dealing with an elbow injury. After signing with Seattle in 2016, Parker would again make it back to the bigs with both the Mariners and Yankees last year before a whirlwind of waiver claims finally settled him in Anaheim prior to this season. Get a load of this offseason movement:
Ah, the glamorous life of a reliever on the fringes of a roster!
It’s been a rollercoaster for Blake Parker, but in Anaheim this season he’s found a great deal of success and even appears to be manager Mike Scioscia’s closer of the moment. With injuries and performance ups and downs from both early-season closer Cam Bedrosian and his replacement Bud Norris, Scioscia had more recently been doling out save opportunities based on matchups. That seems to have changed as the 32-year-old Parker has been given and has converted the Angels’ last four save chances.
As it stands now he’s compiled a 2.10 ERA, 2.35 FIP, and 2.38 DRA this season and is sporting the highest strikeout rate (33 percent) of his career. Parker has benefited from what has been by far his lowest BABIP yet (.229), but is relatedly generating more consistent soft contact than ever. We can’t write off this season as simply a luck-aided aberration.
What’s been different that has allowed Parker to dominate? He finds himself among the top 20 relief pitchers in baseball in fWAR (1.7) and is now the closer for a team in a playoff race. It’s not unheard of for someone to break out after 30, but’s it’s also not common and certainly not without a change of some sort.
Parker continues to rely on primarily on his four-seam fastball and has seen it’s velocity increase by nearly two miles per hour according to Brooks Baseball. That’s impressive, but a certain amount of that can be explained by the shift from the Pitch F/X cameras to the Trackman radar as the primary means of data collection. There has to be a more significant change that has contributed to Parker’s success. Take a look at his usage rates.
That’s pretty cut and dry. Parker has increased his splitter usage and decreased his curveball usage dramatically. This shift seems to have been manifesting slowly over the course of his career, but accelerated this season as Parker now throws his curveball less than 10 percent of the time. It’s great that the change in usage is working out, but how is it happening?
Last season, opposing hitters had a .328 wOBA and 119 wRC+ against Parker’s splitter. It’s important to note that it was an extremely small sample size, but he’s throwing it at essentially the same velocity with almost identical movement, so the look of the pitch hasn’t been reinvented. For some reason, this year batters are chasing Parker’s splitter more despite the fact that it’s in the zone far less often.
Blake Parker: Plate Discipline vs. Splitter
That’s a 12 percentage point increase in swings outside of the strike zone despite a 16.1 percentage point decrease in splitters actually in the zone, which explains the 3.9 percentage point increase in swinging strike rate. Parker is using his splitter more because he’s been able to keep it located at the bottom of, and below the zone with consistency. It’s no longer all over the place.
To that end, while the exit velocity against Parker’s splitter has actually increased slightly from 79.4 to 80.9 miles per hour (still well below the league average of 85.1 against splitters), the average launch angle against it has plummeted from 22.9 to 5 degrees. That squares with Parker’s 23.1 percentage point increase in ground ball rate on the pitch.
The plate discipline numbers were already using a small sample, so it must be pointed out that these batted-ball numbers use an even smaller sample than that, but Parker’s ability to better locate the pitch in 2017 is crystal clear. It’s an improvement that has yielded tangible improvements all around.
In the midst of a hotly contested race for a wild card spot, Mike Scioscia has put his trust in Parker to lock down games. To reach this point after an offseason of waiver claims is a testament to Parker’s growth and how thin the margin of error is in baseball. He improved command of one pitch, started throwing it more, and has transformed himself into one of the most valuable relief pitchers in baseball. Something tells me that for Blake Parker, this coming offseason will be significantly less stressful.
All stats updated through 9/2.
Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.