FORT MYERS, Fla. – As you might suspect, when Blake Parker goes golfing, it takes him a few seconds on the tee box to settle into his stance and stop fidgeting with his driver.
“Oh yeah, I’ve got a waggle,” he said. “I do that a lot.”
He has had plenty of practice. Parker, the lone veteran reliever the Twins invested in this offseason, owns one of the most distinct windups in the major leagues, a choreographed ballet of bends and twitches and jiggles and jerks, all finished off with an exaggerated sigh. And when the floor show ends, his arm raises and a fastball, usually with some sink to it, comes racing toward the plate, as coldly efficient as the opening act is superfluous.
Parker didn’t set out to be the jittery pitcher. It just sort of happened.
“It started out as just a step back [toward the rubber], something to help me come set,” he said. “It’s kind of evolved over the years to an all-around motion, just me getting comfortable and then down.”
But Parker didn’t develop this habit, this series of twists and tremors, out of whimsy. It serves a legitimate purpose.
“I’m not just out there flailing around,” he said. “I’m out there to get outs, not to look cool.”
How he looks is the point, actually. In addition to a fastball and a curve, Parker throws a split-fingered changeup, thrown with an extreme wide grip that flexes the muscles his forearm. Parker said he had reason to suspect that batters could pick up tiny clues in his windup, that he was tipping his pitches with a conventional motion.
“My split change is such an unorthodox grip, I kind of have to wrap my whole hand around it. So there’s a lot of forearm action and the batter can see what you’re doing,” he said. “I decided I had to disguise it.”
And so was born the Parker Shimmy, the most captivating — or annoying, depending on your viewpoint — bit of camouflage that Parker could come up with.
“I can’t say for sure” if it bothers hitters, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Most of the pre-pitch prep on the mound is for the pitcher to get in a rhythm and sync up everything. What Blake does and what many guys do to come set, most of it is for their sake, to get their timing right and get their mind right.”
Not everyone is a fan, and plenty of observers are entertained. Parker, a friendly sort from Arkansas, said teammates like to tease him about his eye-catching windup, and he occasionally is made fun of on Twitter.
“I’ve gotten a lot of flak about it from different people,” he said. “From some umpires, too. I’ve had umpires tell me to clean it up before they come to town for a series.”
The objection, Parker said, is that if his waggles grow too subtle, it appears he is starting and stopping. Baseball rules say he has to come to a complete stop — but only one — before delivering the ball.
“They say I can’t come set multiple times. So I’ve toned it down a little bit the past couple of years, but still try to hide the pitch,” Parker said.
He has never been called for a balk for the windup, either:
“Umpires aren’t out there trying to call balks, they’re out there to keep it uniform,” he said. “They did a great job of letting me know if I’m skirting the line. But at the same time, they respect that that’s my deal.”
A pretty effective deal, too. Parker bounced around early in his career, until the split change gave him an additional weapon, one that turned him into a reliable late-inning arm for the Angels in 2017. He posted a 2.54 ERA, once went six weeks and 19⅓ innings without giving up a run, and eventually became manager Mike Scioscia’s primary setup man for closer Bud Norris.
Last year, after a rough spring camp, his ERA rose to 3.26, but he assumed the closer’s role late in the year, earning 14 saves in 17 chances.
The Twins were impressed enough to sign the 33-year-old to a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $1.8 million, plus another $1.4 million in bonuses if he stays on the roster for most of the season. He is one of several closer candidates, though Parker said he doesn’t care about what inning he pitches, as long as it’s an important one.
He is making a great case for it this spring. Parker pitched a scoreless inning Monday vs. the Orioles, and Baldelli said he is beginning to worry about Parker — he has been so good, he’s not pitching enough. In three outings, Parker has faced 10 batters and retired nine, seven of them on sinker-induced ground balls.
“Sometimes in spring training, you almost want guys to have to work harder just to get them into the swing of things,” Baldelli said. “He’s pitched so well, for the most part we haven’t had much of that.”