Tommy John Recovery Evident In Parker's Return To Mound
ZEBULON, N.C.—It had been a little more than a year and a half since Jarrod Parker last threw a pitch in a minor league game.
Pitching at Carolina for Double-A Mobile on Monday, the Diamondbacks 22-year-old righthander looked very much like one would expect even a premium pitching prospect to look in his first start back from Tommy John surgery. His fastball velocity was close to pre-surgery levels and he flashed a swing-and-miss changeup, but it was clear that Parker's command and slider—two aspects that pitching coaches frequently cite as elements that return later in a pitcher's recovery—were not up to Parker's usual standards.
Through the first three innings, Parker pitched mainly off three pitches, including a 90-94 mph fastball that touched 95, a changeup with good sink at 82-85 mph and a 75-77 mph curveball with good depth and tight spin. After getting by with those three pitches through three innings, Parker in the fourth started to introduce his 80-83 mph slider—an out pitch for him since high school—but it lacked its usual sharpness and his command deserted him, resulting in a seven-run inning. By the end of the day, Parker had surrendering eight runs (seven earned) in 3 2/3 innings, leaving after allowing six hits, three walks and striking out five.
"The third inning, it looked like, 'OK, he's starting to come around a little bit,' " Mobile manager Turner Ward said. "Then he had that fourth inning (and) it looked like things were going good, and then all of a sudden the wheels just kind of came off. To me the most important thing is he's on the mound again. He's getting over that first start, getting over those first-game jitters; getting back from a major surgery, knowing he can get back on the mound again, knowing he can compete. I think each start now is going to be a growing experience for him."
With an 11 a.m. start time on a Monday morning road game, it wasn't exactly Parker's first start back under the lights, but it was nonetheless the first time Arizona's 2007 first-round selection had thrown a pitch in a minor league game since July 30, 2009.
Parker's final warm-up pitch before the first inning bounced off the backstop, and his control wavered early. Parker walked Mudcats right fielder Felix Perez on five pitches to lead off the game, then continued to leave his fastball up to third baseman Jake Kahaulelio, who hit a 3-2 ground ball to shortstop, but an airmailed throw to first base left runners on first and third with no outs. Parker settled down, though, retiring the next three hitters, including a strikeout of center fielder Dennis Phipps swinging at a fastball.
He held the Mudcats scoreless over the next two innings, needing just 22 pitches combined for those frames. He struck out three batters in those frames, one looking at a 1-2 curveball, another swinging at a 94 mph fastball in a 1-2 count and the other whiffing at a 2-2 changeup. Overall, Parker punched out two batters swinging on changeups, a pitch that the Mudcats hitters swung through a handful of times during his brief outing.
"When you have that kind of velocity with the fastball up in the zone and you can keep that changeup down, as long as you're keeping the arm speed, that's what's going to fool hitters—and he did," Ward said. "He got some swings and misses today with his changeup, which is a good sign. He just can't fall in love with that pitch. I think the biggest key for him is coming back in his next start and getting that command of his fastball—that's what's going to make everything better."
It was that command in the fourth inning that finished Parker. After Phipps doubled on a fastball left up in the zone, Parker recovered to strike out left fielder Kyle Day. He then walked second baseman Cody Puckett on four pitches and got to a 1-1 count on shortstop Jose Castro before his balk advanced the runners to second and third. With Mobile leading 2-1 and the infield brought in, Castro grounded a 2-2 fastball for a double down the first-base line to give the Mudcats a 3-2 lead.
Parker got catcher Chris McMurray to fly out to center field on the next pitch, but that was the last out he registered. He walked pitcher Jordan Hotchkiss on four pitches, then hit Perez with a fastball and followed that by hitting Kahaulelio with a slider that didn't break. Mike Costanzo ended Parker's day by launching his 32nd pitch of the inning—a 94 mph fastball up in the zone—for a grand slam to right-center field.
"I just got kind of lackadaisical, lost some control," Parker said. "I made some bad pitches with two strikes that hurt me, left some balls up, hit a couple guys. It was just kind of a terrible inning.
"I was battling a little bit with everything, trying to keep in line and throw everything the same, but I think my mechanics were pretty normal today. Just that one bad inning kind of got me. I lost some focus and kind of got lazy, then I made a mistake in a key situation."
Despite the ugly line in the box score, there's little reason to be concerned. At his best, Parker has sat at 93-95 mph
and touched 97 with a plus-plus slider. If his slider returns and his control comes back on the typical path for Tommy John surgery recoveries, he'll show why he's Arizona's top prospect.
And while Parker said he had shelved his slider for most of spring training, his other offspeed pitches are improved. His changeup flashes plus and is becoming a true out-pitch. His curveball, mostly a show-me pitch in the past that he would use as an early-count pitch to give hitters another look, has become a more reliable offering.
"I've been throwing my curveball a lot more than I had in the past, and trying to limit the amount of sliders I throw," Parker said. "I'm still trying to feel out the slider as well. I'm just more comfortable with the curveball right now . . . I think it's just experience and working back in to throwing the slider with as much conviction and effect that I did before surgery, so I'm just slowly working into it."