Having Patience With Young Pitchers

Parker was so off in April that he couldn't even blow a decent bubble. - Otto Greule Jr

Jarrod Parker was supposed to be good this year. Then, he was terrible in April. Then he was good in May! Odds are that he's still good.

Entering the 2013 season, the only question about Jarrod Parker was whether he would settle in as the Oakland Athletics' #2 starter or establish himself as the ace of the staff. He'd been excellent as a 23-year-old rookie in 2012, had improved in the second half of the season, and had the stuff and the prospect pedigree to suggest that he had a high ceiling. There was every reason to expect that he'd be good, and no specific reason to expect that he'd be bad.

Then, this happened:

Jarrod Parker, April 2013: 7.36 ERA, 18 K's, 16 BB's, .350 BAA, 4.9 IP/start

Panic.

By the end of April, it was not uncommon to find fans calling for Parker's demotion, whether on the A's post-game radio show, Twitter, or even the comments section of AN. You could understand why folks would respond like that; Parker had been utterly ineffective in every conceivable way, allowing too many walks and hits and homers and failing to strike batters out or go deep into games. It was hard to find anything to like about his early-season performance, and Dan Straily was going nuts in AAA as an obvious replacement.

The thing was, though, that nothing in Parker's underlying peripherals signaled that anything was wrong. He was throwing the same pitches at the same frequencies and the same velocities, and he was hitting the zone every bit as often and inducing swinging strikes at a slightly higher rate than in 2012. He seemed physically the same as last year, he wasn't particularly wild, and he was still missing bats. What in the world was wrong? For one, he was missing his spots within the zone sometimes and leaving pitches up, but there wasn't that much differentiating him from the successful pitcher he was in 2012 except for a few extra mistake pitches.

Given that he didn't appear to be injured, there were two conclusions to draw from Parker's April performance. You could either assume that he had simply forgotten how to pitch since last year, or you could chalk it up to a small sample size and the ups and downs of a young pitcher. Let's see what happened next:

Jarrod Parker, April: 7.36 ERA, 18 K's, 16 BB's, .350 BAA, 4.9 IP/start
Jarrod Parker, May: 3.62 ERA, 26 K's, 10 BB's, .216 BAA, 6.5 IP/start

Well, that's more like it. He ended up leaving his start on May 6 because of a minor neck strain, which he claimed had been an issue throughout the season, but he made his subsequent starts without missing a turn and his velocity had not been affected. It's difficult to say how much, if any, of his April struggles had been caused by the injury, but whatever pain in his neck or kink in his mechanics was bothering him before sure doesn't seem to be bothering him now. Sure, there has also been a drop in BABIP from .375 to .217, and that stat seems more likely to settle somewhere in the middle of those two extremes (.290 in 2012), but it's also reasonable to expect that his 14.7% homer-to-fly-ball rate will come down a bit as well (6.8% in 2012).

Parker is starting to look like the pitcher he was last year, and the pitcher he was supposed to be this year. In his last three starts, he's thrown 21 innings, allowed only six runs on 15 hits, and struck out 14 batters to only 4 walks. If he continues to pitch like that, then he's going to be the top-of-the-rotation pitcher that we all expected him to be this year, and everyone's going to forget his lackluster April awfully quickly.

More importantly, he can serve as another lesson to us all about small sample sizes and having patience with young pitchers. In the absence of obvious injury, it's usually best to let a highly-touted youngster work through his struggles at the Major League level. In cases like these, patience is a virtue.

Parker hopes to start June on the right foot against the White Sox today. He faces Chris Sale at 1:05pm.

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