PHOENIX -- Back in the day, the Talking Heads sang, "Same as it ever was," in their hit "Once in a Lifetime." Perhaps singer David Byrne hadn't anticipated Jarrod Parker, the once and future top gun who has already gone from touted ace-in-the-making in the Arizona Diamondbacks' farm system to 2010 Tommy John surgery to touted ace-in-the-making atop the Oakland Athletics' rotation.
Does that make Parker, 24, a rising star or a prodigy simply delivering on his promise? A bit of both, because for him, where expectations are concerned, it's very much the same as it ever was. Although after a roller coaster like that to launch a career, maybe in Parker's case it ought to already be twice in a lifetime as he heads into 2013 atop the rotation of the defending American League West champs.
Fulfilling expectations has been Parker's lot ever since he was the ninth overall selection in the 2007 draft as an Indiana high school star. He has done more than simply rise to meet them. Coming over to the Athletics as the key part of the package sent to Oakland in the Trevor Cahill deal before the 2012 season, all Parker did as a rookie was earn a late-April promotion and launch his big-league career by passing by former Mets phenom Dwight Gooden in the record book. Parker became the first rookie since Ferdie Schupp in the dead ball era to allow one run or fewer in at least 10 of his first 14 big-league starts, topping Doc's 9-for-13 mark from his historic 1984 rookie season.
After that great start to his career, Parker inevitably had to eventually settle for giving up as many as two runs to an opponent, but his ERA in the second half jumped by almost a full run. Was he getting tired, or was the league figuring him out?
With characteristic directness, Parker said, "A little bit of both. Last year was a long year for me. I'd never gone over 175 [innings], and I ended up throwing 212 innings. So I think it's just a little bit of both. Obviously, at this point the league's going to adjust, and I have to be ahead of that curve."
Parker finished the year with 13 wins and 140 strikeouts while notching 6.9 strikeouts per nine and drew the assignment of facing Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 5 of the ALDS loss to the Detroit Tigers.
While expectations for what Parker might accomplish have always been high, it shouldn't be too surprising that whatever has been expected of him, Parker's expectations for himself are higher still.
"I'm my toughest critic, and that's the way it should be," says Parker, who has a 7.20 ERA this spring. "At this point, I feel good with my stuff. Last year, I had a rough spring too, but I figured it out pretty quick."
That seems to be Parker's modus operandi: identify a problem, solve it, adapt and overcome. He is constantly looking for new ways to get better with the alacrity of a veteran, not someone preparing for his second season in the majors.
"Everybody learns at some point. For me, it was coming back from surgery, I had to learn to pitch," Parker said. "I'd always been a guy who could overpower people and do that, but after surgery, I was really kind of focused on learning to pitch, learning what the hitters were thinking. I was able to pick the brains of a lot of guys while I was on the DL, just trying to learn as much as I can. To be able to learn as much on that side of it was a big thing for me."
Parker used the loss of the 2010 season to tremendous effect. Although he mixes in a slider, he's much more heavily reliant on changing speeds and locating his fastball, alternating between four-seam heat that gets into the mid-90s, the sinker he started relying on much more prominently in his comeback from injury in 2011 and that changeup he credits for being instrumental to his success in 2012.
Statheads might be quick to infer that Parker is learning from the example set by former teammate Brandon McCarthy, perhaps the reigning example of a pitcher who has helped himself by doing his homework.
But for Parker, that's terra incognita, at least so far.
"I'm not big on sabermetrics," he said. "I go over reports, watch a lot of video, but that's not something I've gotten into at this point. I'm just fine-tuning everything. I want my changeup to be the way it was at the end of last year, so I'm just slowly getting it back. I'm just trying to find my release point."
Parker already sounds like somebody who has figured out what spring training is for. Having already earned his place atop the rotation of a defending division champ, it's same as it ever was.