As the Nationals’ pitching staff at the major-league level has floundered this season, the young arms they have been developing in their farm system have become more important than ever.
The club has always touted the importance of quality pitching when building a roster with championship aspirations, but Washington’s inability to develop arms in recent years forced its window of contention shut when the team held a fire sale at the trade deadline. Top pitching prospects Cade Cavalli and Jackson Rutledge as well as rookie Josiah Gray give the Nationals hope they’ll have the pieces for a formidable rotation in the near future.
However, they’re not the only pitchers in the Nationals’ organization turning heads.
Mitchell Parker is set to wrap up his first professional season next week after being picked by the Nationals in the fifth round of the 2020 MLB Draft. Listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Parker, 21, is among the biggest players in their entire farm system.
The left-hander has shown impressive strikeout ability matched by few across the minor leagues during his time with Low-A Fredericksburg and High-A Wilmington. He's thriving under professional instruction working with Nationals' organizational pitching coaches dedicated to getting the most out of his talent.
“The biggest thing for me this year was growing up and learning how to get professional hitters out,” Parker said in a phone interview. “It was a lot different than college. Here, I actually got to learn how to pitch. Working with Pat [Rice] down in Low-A and then [Justin Lord] up here. Definitely those two guys are good to help me out how to grow up as a pitcher and learn how to sequence things and just kinda get guys out instead of just throwing fastballs.”
Now, Parker hasn’t had a season that would jump off a baseball card. He’s posted a 4.87 ERA across 23 appearances (21 starts) between Fredericksburg and Wilmington. His biggest issue has been walking batters (3.4 walks per nine innings) and that’s contributed to his high run totals along with the occasional home run.
Yet it’s not the ERA that tells Parker’s story. The San Jacinto College product has struck out 144 batters this season, most of any Nationals prospect not named Cavalli. His 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings rank third among all Single-A pitchers. Meanwhile, he’s fallen victim to some bad luck with a .363 batting average on balls in play while stranding just 61.4% of baserunners. The average pitcher posts a .300 BABIP against and strands 75% of opposing runners.
“Mitchell would be the first to tell you his numbers here aren’t what he wants them to be,” Wilmington manager Tommy Shields said. “And I think it’s because the strikes he did throw were not really quality strikes. They would tend to be out over the plate and in the nitro zone and guys didn’t miss it.
“Last outing, he threw a lot more quality strikes down in the zone or even above the zone, on top of the zone. So he was working both up and down whereas in his previous starts, he tended to be in the middle of the plate. That’s the progression he went through this year up here. Because he dominated in Fredericksburg, but it was tougher going up here.”
As the season has gone on, Parker has improved his location and sequencing. After allowing nine home runs in his first 13 appearances, he’s given up just three over his last 10 outings. Parker has also started to develop a splitter, which Shields touted as a breaking ball that “acts like a changeup,” to pair with his fastball and curveball that both earned a 55 rating on the 20-80 scale by MLB Pipeline.
He’ll make his final start of the season this weekend against the Bowling Green Hot Rods. From there, he hopes to tackle his next obstacle: limiting those walks.
“I’m gonna really this offseason figure out how to walk less guys,” Parker said. “There’s a couple points where I was walking too many guys, going too long into innings, wasting a lot of pitches. So we’re just gonna really grind and try to lessen the pitch count.”
Parker is going to have to take the next step forward before the Nationals can consider him a candidate for their big-league rotation, but he has the build and mechanics to remain a starter. His stuff has shown that it plays in the professional ranks and at 21 he still has plenty of time left to develop. Whether that potential can be converted to substantial success is up to him.