Jarrod Parker made his Oakland A's debut Wednesday by throwing 6.1 innings, allowing one run on seven hits with five strikeouts against the Chicago White Sox. He ended up with a no-decision when A's closer Grant Balfour blew a one-run lead in the ninth, but Parker looked very sharp, showcasing good command and plus stuff after a jumpy second inning.
Taken in the 2007 draft as the ninth-overall selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school, Parker was considered a power pitcher in every sense, featuring a mid-to-high 90s fastball with a devastating slider. He was a top prospect in the D-Backs organization - tabbed as the team's top-rated hurler in 2009 and 2010.
But after just two seasons as a professional, Parker was forced under the knife for Tommy John surgery weeks before his 21st birthday. After two years of monotonous rehab and hard work, Parker found himself pitching in the big leagues and facing the team he cheered on to a World Series championship in 2005 as a 16-year-old in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Admittedly, Parker isn't the same pitcher he was before the surgery.
"I feel like I'm different," he said. "It's something that changes the way you throw. I think honestly I've become a better pitcher because of it. I'm not just a thrower anymore and it kind of was a blessing to get it done early and come back, get ready to go."
Last year was Parker's first full season throwing since his surgery in 2009. He spent the majority of it working on his regaining his feel and command. He was successful enough to get to the big leagues, earning a September start with the Diamondbacks. He threw 5.2 scoreless innings in his major league debut last season. Parker showed poise, allowing only four hits and did well enough to earn a spot on the postseason roster. Parker made one appearance in the National League Division Series out of the bullpen.
For the first time since his elbow injury, Parker had a completely healthy off-season and he was able to resume a regular program coming into this year's spring training. He threw well in spring training, striking out nine hitters with 3.27 ERA. But he could not command the strike zone, walking 13 hitters in 11 innings. On Wednesday, he walked only one batter.
"It was a pretty quick fix," Parker said, attributing his command issues to a kink in his mechanics.
"We got back to doing a couple of towel drills and some simple stuff. Sometimes those things get away from you and I think getting back to it was important."
At the start of the regular season, Parker was sent to Triple-A Sacramento and he pitched well in four starts for the River Cats. In 20.2 innings, he struck out 21 hitters and compiled a 2.18 ERA. When A's fourth starter Graham Godfrey began to struggle with his command, the A's thought it was the right time to bring Parker up to the big leagues.
"A couple games in spring training his command was off. I think it was more the fact that he was trying so hard to make the team and he was trying to hard to impress that his mechanics got out of whack," A's catcher Kurt Suzuki said.
"That's gone now. He's really focused on strike one and pounding the strike zone. You could tell today. He was pretty incredible."
Suzuki and Parker did well in executing their game plan for Wednesday's start by throwing a lot of fastballs early and mixing in different pitches as the game wore on. Parker threw 14 pitches in his first inning – 12 fastballs, two changeups – topping out at 94 MPH. In the second inning, he introduced his slider to the middle of the order, but hung a few and allowed three hits in the frame.
Those hits didn't equal a run, however, after Paul Konerko was thrown out trying to advance to second on a wild pitch. And then with runners at second and third with just one out, Parker got Koskuke Fukudome on a lineout and Brent Morel to strike-out, ending the threat.
From the third inning on, Parker settled down and began using his entire arsenal of pitches, working two-seam and four-seam fastballs, a slider, changeup and occasional curve. He combined to throw 35 pitches over the next three innings and was lifted after surrendering a double with one out in the seventh on his 99th pitch.
Parker's poise and ability to mix velocity and location stood out during his A's debut. After throwing mostly four-seam fastballs early, he was able to plant his two-seam version down in the strike-zone getting good action away from left-handed hitters and inside to righties. His four-seamer was thrown as hard as 95, while his two-seamer jumped around from 90 to 92.
Before his surgery, many believed that Parker's slider was his best off-speed pitch. Now, it appears that his changeup is his put-away pitch of choice. The velocity on his changeup sits in the low-80s, while his slider with late action comes in between 84 and 86.
The 23-year-old used his curveball exclusively as a ‘show' pitch, using it sparingly in the first pitch of at-bats to prove it exists. He's still working on command of the curveball, but it could eventually become a pitch to throw with two strikes. At 74 MPH, the curveball doesn't pose the same type of deception as his change or slider, yet.
"He kind of settled in a little bit in later parts of innings and was pitching easy at 92-93. In the first couple innings he was 94-95-96. He's got it in there. He's just got to keep it nice and easy and pitch," Suzuki said.
After shutting down a solid major league lineup in his first American League start, Parker showed the potential to become the most complete pitcher on the A's staff. He has more life in his arm than either Brandon McCarthy or Tom Milone, with a deeper arsenal of pitches than both Bartolo Colon and Tyson Ross.
Parker is far from a finished product, which is awfully encouraging for the A's. His command has room to improve, but it should improve with experience, given Parker's quiet mechanics and repeatable delivery.
"Usually when you have a young pitcher that can change speeds, can throw the off-speed behind in the count whenever he wants and feel comfortable with it, I think you're always ‘advanced' in that part of it," Suzuki said.
"That's pitching, learning how to throw different stuff behind in the count. I think he's in a good place right and now and will keep getting better."
On Wednesday, Parker also showed a propensity for pitching out of tough situations. During his A's debut, there were two innings in which the White Sox failed to score after having a runner in scoring position with less than two outs. In the sixth inning, Parker got Adam Dunn to pop out to short with the infield in and a runner on third, followed by a Konerko fly out. With Sacramento, hitters went just 4-for-29 against Parker with runners in scoring position.
"I thought he was terrific. I really did. All the things they said he'd been working on, against a pretty good lineup, especially in the middle of the order he was cutting through," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said when asked his initial thoughts on his new starting pitcher.
"(It was) a great start for him. It was good to see him get out of the gates and have a good start. We feel really good about him."