In a season that can most accurately be summed up by the number of times the Brewers have “hit rock bottom”, Monday’s game against the Cardinals served as a new low. After scratching out a pair of runs late in the game, the Brewers entered the ninth with a 2-0 lead in a game they desperately needed to win. Struggling then-closer John Axford then allowed three hits, two walks, and three runs before being finally removed. The Brewers lost 3-2, and Axford was summarily removed from the closer’s role.
However, as horrid as that game was, it’s starting to look like something good might come out of it – and, no, this is not one of those weird insurance commercials. In the most recent games after Axford’s demotion, the necessary shakeup in roles has led to a few pitchers having surprising success in them, even if the roles themselves are just as rigid. A number of guys come to mind, but the series of strong outings by new setup man Manny Parra.
Up until Monday, Parra had mainly been a long relief/mop-up man/fan whipping boy, and didn’t appear to be making the case to graduate to a larger role: Parra’s 4.28 ERA was nothing special, and he had several high-profile flops in extra-inning games that were rare high-leverage opportunities for him. However, when Ron Roenicke called on him in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s game, Parra responded by retiring Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and Carlos Beltran in order, preserving a 3-2 lead that turned out to be the deciding margin. Today, Parra held the Cardinals’ 1-through-4 hitters scoreless in the seventh, walking two and striking out one in what turned out to be a 4-3 Brewers win. Can the left-hander keep this up?
It’s unlikely that Parra will suddenly turn into another John Axford (the 2010-2011 version), but his success is probably more sustainable than you think. There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that Parra is a much better pitcher than we’ve seen this year, and his recent run – even if it only consists of somewhere around two weeks of effective hurling and two days in a new role – is the better indicator of his true talent going forward.
Contrary to popular belief, Parra’s biggest problem this year hasn’t been walking batters. Instead, he has been plagued most by the most luck-based of pitching stats: BABIP. To date, opponents have hit .353 off Parra on balls in play, a full 60 points higher than the league average. Granted, some of this is likely the result of Parra frequently being behind in the count, but his BABIP is still almost sure to go down significantly, with a corresponding dip in runs allowed. Hopefully, Parra’s ERA will begin to fall more in line with his FIP, which currently stands at a sparkling 2.42.
As you should know by now, a FIP that low is a relatively rare occurrence, and the pitcher in question is likely to be doing a few things right. In this case, Parra is no exception. This year he has struck out over ten batters per nine innings (10.15, to be exact), and his walk totals, while still higher than ideal, are actually quite a bit better than in years past (3.46 per nine, versus 4.65 in 2010 and 4.95 in 2009). Also, despite the barrage of hits and being consistently behind in the count, Parra’s HR/9 currently stands at .22 – a single dinger allowed in 41.2 innings. If you look past the ERA, Parra compares very favorably to almost every single one of his teammates, with 2.42 FIP good for best among any Brewers reliever with at least 10 innings.
Is Parra the solution to of all of the Brewers’ bullpen problems? No. Parra has always had the stuff that suggests he could be a great reliever if he could put it all together, but at this point in his career, it’s hard to see him emerging as a perennial late-inning guy. However, at this point, he’s likely the best 7th/8th inning option the Brewers have. Especially when you consider the nature of relievers, where John Axford, Derrick Turnbow, Dan Kolb, Todd Coffey, and Kameron Loe have all had their moments at one time or another, there’s no harm at this point in seeing if Parra can keep this going for awhile.