In a year of the unexpected for the Angels, maybe no player has provided a more unexpected season than reliever Blake Parker.
Prior to this season, Parker endured a transactional history that many players never go through. A quick look at his Fox Sports profile gives you an idea of what he’s been through just since the year 2015.
It seems as if Major League Baseball teams either really valued Blake Parker or barely valued him, allowing him to swap teams like it was nothing. Just this past offseason alone, Parker went from the Yankees to the Angels to the Brewers then back to the Angels. Angels general manager Billy Eppler was clearly intrigued by Parker, acquiring him numerous times. So what is it that teams saw in Parker that resulted in him moving around so much and burning frequent flyer miles in the process?
First, Parker has always missed bats, even across the minor league level. In 423 career minor league innings, Parker struck out 480 batters, which is good for a very impressive 10.2 K/9 rate. Before this season, the lowest strikeout percentage he had in a MLB season was 18.8% in 6 innings in 2012 and posted a career best 28.2% strikeout rate in 21 innings in 2014. The ability to miss bats has always been there, thanks to a solid fastball-curveball combination.
Elsewhere, however, Parker was lacking. The majority of his MLB time prior to this year came with the Chicago Cubs, where he had a solid 3.68 ERA in 73 1/3 innings but posted a 1.323 WHIP, which was far too high to be an effective reliever. Coming into 2017, there wasn’t much of an expectation for Parker, who was a low risk arm who had been decently productive in some MLB seasons but was also a 31 year old who had elbow surgery just 2 years ago.
Then, Spring Training happened. Deciphering whose over performances or under performances are real in the month of March is always tough but Blake Parker put on a clinic, which resulted in him making the Angels Opening Day roster. In 12 1/3 innings, Parker allowed 1 lone run while striking out an absurd 24 batters while walking just 2 batters. This included Parker striking out 17 of the last 18 batters he faced in Spring Training, which is hard to fake even in a short stint.
As many are aware by now, this success from Spring Training carried over to the regular season. In 64 innings this season, Parker is posting career highs across the board: ERA(2.39), FIP(2.61), K%(33.9%), K-BB%(27.3%) and Fangraphs version of WAR(1.6). By fWAR, Parker is the 23rd most valuable reliever in baseball. Baseball Reference, which looks more at strictly run prevention, values him even higher at 1.8 WAR. You can make the case that Parker is a top 20 reliever in baseball who is only topped on the Angels by fellow teammate Yusmeiro Petit(2.2 fWAR).
There are numerous factors to the established success Parker has created this year. For starters, his fastball velocity this year is at 93.6 mph, well above his career 92.4 mark. Secondly, and arguably the most important thing that Parker has improved, is the development of his split finger fastball. MLB.com has discussed this pitch as has Beyond the Box Score. The pitch is a legitimate wipeout pitch that has helped turn Parker’s career around.
According to Fangraphs pitch value system, Parker’s split finger is the best split finger among MLB relievers, coming in at 5 weighted runs above average. In 2016, Parker started tinkering with the pitch and threw it 19.4% of the time but without a ton of success. This year, he’s throwing it 31.8% of the time while throwing it a full mph harder.
In other words, Parker is throwing much harder and his 3rd best pitch prior to the season is now his wipeout secondary pitch. He still throws his curveball, which has gotten good results even while throwing it less than 10% of the time. Part of the success with these pitches is related to Parker’s consistent release points. Many great pitchers are able to deceive hitters due to throwing pitches from the same release point and Parker has done precisely that this year. Here’s a look at his vertical release point.
You put all of this together and you have a dominant reliever. It’s never wise to rely on relievers long term but for the short term, Blake Parker looks like an extremely good reliever. Parker has only racked up 2 years of service time so he’ll hit arbitration for the first time this winter and doesn’t hit free agency until after the 2020 season. Given that he was acquired for essentially nothing, the Blake Parker pickup looks to be one of the most shrewd moves made by the Angels in some time.