In the Pirates’ home clubhouse, almost every occupied locker has a finished nameplate above it. The glossed creations are always pristine, even if the contents of the lockers are not.
That is, except for relief pitcher Parker Markel, who has a nondescript piece of paper taped to the top of his locker with his name and number typed in a different font than everyone else. Markel was recalled by the Pirates from AAA Indianapolis on Aug. 3, and it can sometimes take a couple days for call-ups to get their first nameplate. At the end of the homestand on Aug. 7, he still had the placeholder, but it did not bother him.
“I’ll rock that for the rest of the season,” said Markel with a smile.
What is above Markel’s major league locker is not the story, though. It’s about how he went halfway across the globe, returned, wound up in the emergency room and eventually earned a major league locker.
Markel was a 39th round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, and he slowly rose through their system. He pitched well in 2016, recording a 2.52 ERA in 60.2 innings at AAA, but the Rays decided to not add him to their 40 man roster. Now a minor league free agent, he had offers to pitch in the States, but he and his new bride, Chelsey, decided his best course of action was to go to South Korea. Not only was the money better, he would get a chance to start again.
He quickly learned Korea was not the place for him, and he left the Lotte Giants after one preseason appearance due to family issues and a disagreement on how to treat a shoulder injury.
After staying away from baseball for the rest of the 2017 season, Markel signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks that winter, but he was released near the end of spring training. That lead him to Sioux City, Iowa, where he would pitch for the Explorers in the independent American Association League.
His stint in indy ball got off to a terrible start. In his first day of spring training, he pitched live batting practice and was struck in the right ear canal by a line drive. (The hitter, Nate Samson, went on to win the league’s batting title.)
As Markel was being taken to the emergency room, his mind ran wild with thoughts about his family.
“One of the scariest moments of my life,” Markel said. “...I got very, very lucky because it hit me in a spot where it could have been bad.”
The impact caused a concussion and a ruptured eardrum. He temporarily lost his hearing in his right ear, and it would take three months to heal.
“Just constant buzzing and ringing in my it,” Markel said. “It almost felt like you had water in your ear. Everything was muffled.”
Markel eventually regained his hearing, and something else: his love of the game.
“In indy ball, it’s not all glitz and glamour,” Parker said. “There’s only thing to do really do, one option, and that’s just to work on yourself as a baseball player and as a person off the field.
“It just brought back the pure joy of the game of baseball for me, honestly.”
He also found something new: a better slider. While he always had breaking pitches at his disposal, being in a low pressure environment gave him the opportunity to experiment with grips and releases. Eventually, he had his aha moment and found one he liked, and he has been using it ever since.
Markel’s breaking ball is averaging 2,700 RPMs this year (near the top 10% in baseball) and 5.6 inches of horizontal movement more than the average slider.
With the revamped pitch, Markel went from a K/9 rate of about 7 per nine innings with the Rays to 13.5 K/9 with the Explorers. In AAA this year, he averaged 14.4 K/9 with a 38.3% strikeout rate.
“I know that the RPMs are there,” Markel said of his slider. “It’s something that I try to maintain and improve on. Just try to execute each pitch.
“I’m not thinking of RPMs on the mound too much. I’m just trying to get hitters out.”
With a new breaking ball in tow, Markel had offers from major league teams again after the season. He signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners, and on May 12, he finally reached the show.
Markel was designated for assignment by the Mariners on July 23 before being claimed by the Pirates on July 27. In two outings with the Bucs, he has struck out four and allowed one earned run in three innings pitched.
The results have been good, but the path to getting them has been better, or at the very least more interesting.
“It’s been quite the journey.”