Parr’s slight changes yielding big results in batter’s box
Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.
Sitting in the clubhouse at Illinois Field this past week, Justin Parr has his arms extended across the couch, a huge rip in his pants along his right knee. He’s watching the Cubs game before practice. He seems, for this moment at least, to not have a care in the world.
That is, until he has to go outside to have his photo taken, and he’s worried about having to wear a helmet. He thinks helmets make him look stupid.
But Parr is most dangerous when he’s wearing a helmet and standing in the batter’s box. He’s the last person that ends up looking stupid.
Parr is hitting .407, leading his team in hits, RBIs, slugging percentages and extra base hits. He’s currently riding a career-high 13-game hitting streak and has a hit in 23 of Illinois’ 25 games this season. This past weekend against Oakland, Parr hit his first home run of the season, two doubles and had two stolen bases while driving in six runs. He hit .500 over the four-game series.
In a 6-2 win against Missouri in the Battle at Busch on Tuesday, Parr added two stolen bases and a two-for-four performance for his 13th multi-hit game of the season.
“Everyone goes through that time where (they feel like) every pitcher’s average, and you’re going to smoke it every time you go up there,” said Jordan Parr, his twin brother and Illinois’ left fielder.
Head coach Dan Hartleb gives Justin Parr credit for being more mature. That may be true, as he’s now a senior in his third season with Illinois after transferring from Parkland Community College, but he says he doesn’t feel much different than last year. He’s having more fun, laughing more in the dugout and being able to roam freely in center field, where he likes the fact that no one can call him off a fly ball.
Parr didn’t describe himself as locked-in but, instead, more relaxed than he’s ever been.
“There’s no pressure on you,” he said. “You’re not going: ‘I need to get a hit. I need to do this or do that.’ ... When you’re just feeling it, you don’t really think about it. Your mind is blank.”
“His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” -Matthew 25:23 (King James Version)
Parr spent this past summer playing for the Rochester Honkers of the Northwoods League, where he worked on his batting stance. He wanted to take better advantage of his speed and athleticism. Parr felt as if 2012 was a bit of a down year, as his average dropped from .317 in his first season to .290. The rest of his numbers didn’t change much from the first season, but Parr felt like it was time for a change, albeit a minor one. He’s standing up taller in the batter’s box, a full 6-foot-2 with almost no bend in his knees. It allows him to swing down and get on top of the ball more easily.
That stance almost eliminates the potential for home run power, but he’s OK with that. Parr’s not a home run hitter, but he’ll run into one every once in a while, like this past Friday when he pulled a no-doubter over the right field wall in the first inning. He prefers the double he smashed into the gap during his next at-bat, or a single right back up the middle. Parr thought he swung at too many balls in the dirt and hit too many lazy fly balls last year, and he wants to turn those into ground balls that he has a chance to beat out with his speed.
It’s unusual that he would make the change himself without really consulting anyone.
He rarely even remembers any of his at-bats.
If he can’t remember the good at-bats, then he won’t remember the bad ones, either. And a short memory in a game in which the batter fails more often than not is important. In college, he’ll rarely have to face the same pitcher in more than one game, so he’s able to get away with it.
Assistant coach Eric Snider has helped Parr become a much more patient hitter this season, working deep into the count and waiting for the exact pitch he wants to hit. It also results in more than a couple glares back at the umpire when he sees a called strike he doesn’t like.
Parr is naturally an aggressive hitter, just like his twin brother Jordan and their older brother Josh, who is now in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.
“We always feel you can hit a pitch,” Justin Parr said.
But nearly everything else in his routine is the same. He’s a devout Christian who still makes time for a small prayer before games. He’ll show up the park 30 minutes before everyone else arrives to hit balls off the tee with Jordan. With every swing he takes in batting practice, he’s thinking “middle,” not trying to hit the ball the other way or pull anything.
He wears a black bracelet on his left wrist with white lettering that says “I am second” because God is first. He never removes the bracelet or the chain with a cross he wears around his neck.
Underneath the bill of his cap, he writes “Romans 8:28 and Matthew 25:23”.
Parr touches the same five points on the plate every time he walks into the batters box, making an imaginary Cross across the plate — outside, inside, top, bottom, middle. Same way, every time.
“I’ve done that since I was in sixth grade,” he says through a laugh. “I don’t why, I cover the whole plate?”
He pauses and laughs again.
“I probably can’t, but I probably think I can.”
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28 (King James Version)
The start of this season is not about redemption, at least Parr doesn’t appear to want it to be. But in a way, it is.
Parr remembers what happened last summer. Scouts told him he could get drafted as high as the fifth round in the MLB’s First-Year Player Draft, but he knew that high was likely a pipe dream. He’d heard 10th round, more realistic, but still a bit of a stretch. Round 15 or 20, almost certainly. But those rounds passed and he never got a phone call, never saw his name flash across the computer screen. He wasn’t selected in the 40-round draft.
This was his dream, ever since he was a little kid, to grow up and play Major League Baseball.
Outwardly, he only expressed excitement because Jordan was selected in the 26th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The twins’ father, Cam, said Justin was happier for Jordan than Jordan was for himself.
So he’s dealt with the situation well. He didn’t pout, and he chalked it up as a part of God’s plan for him. But even after he’d hit his first home run of the season this past Friday, he’s greeted with questions from a reporter about not being drafted. His demeanor changes just slightly before he answers. He pauses and chooses his words much more carefully then he already does.
“You don’t get sick of (answering those questions),” Parr said Monday, “But there’s just times where you’re just like, ‘I’m ready for that to be done with and kind of over,’ and you want to play and have a good season.”
If he continues putting up numbers like he has this season, he’ll almost certainly hear his name called for the draft this summer.
Then, in a way, he’ll finally be able to relax.
Jamal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @jamalcollier.