Mark Melancon took control of closing duties full-time in 2014 when Jason Grilli blew four saves and posted a 4.87 ERA in 22 appearances before Pittsburgh traded him to the Los Angeles Angels.
As 2015 began, Melancon experienced a similar start to the man he used to set up. Melancon yielded six runs in seven outings, good for an unsightly 8.53 ERA, which prompted calls for his “exclusion” as manager Clint Hurdle put it.
“It was his two probably most complicated outings since he’d been in a uniform,” Hurdle said. “They happened in one week.”
While the six runs he allowed came across two outings, Melancon’s April overall wasn’t one of his best months as a major-leaguer. Opponents slugged .482 against his cutter and made hard contact on it with 29 percent of their swings.
The largest cause for concern was the velocity on his cutter, Melancon’s signature pitch that turned him into an elite closer, which dropped to an average of 89.33 miles per hour in April. Melancon’s primary weapon was between 92-93 on average last season, and the drop early this season resulted in the pitch having less literal “cut” to it.
Hurdle posited Melancon’s trip to Japan as a part of an All-Star series over the winter could have delayed or changed his offseason throwing program and played a hand in the closer’s rocky start. Melancon dismisses the notion as a reason for his velocity drop.
“[It’s] maybe a two-week difference,” Melancon said. “I went to Japan but I threw three innings so you can take that how you want to.”
Pitching coach Ray Searage speculated the velocity drop had to do with Melancon battling some dead-arm issues out of spring training.
“Mark just happened to have it at that point in time,” Searage said. “A lot of speculation was going on and all this how he’s ‘lost it’ and everything like that.”
At some point in any season, relievers will endure a batch of rough outings. Melancon’s came at the beginning of the season which inflated his numbers to astronomical levels and incited panic outside the organization.
“Knowing Mark and how disciplined he is with his work habits and everything it was just a little bump in the road at that point in time,” Searage said. “So with Mark, he’s very resilient and every time I talked to him during that span there was no panic in his eyes.”
Hurdle didn’t panic either, reassuring Melancon he was not in jeopardy of losing the closer’s job.
Melancon proved the trust of Searage and Hurdle to be well-founded. Since he allowed three runs to the Chicago Cubs en route to blowing the save and taking a loss April 21, Melancon has shown the form that made him an All-Star.
“He needed to focus on pitch execution,” Hurdle said. “Since then he’s been on a very, very impressive run out of the bullpen as far as closing games and the execution and quality of pitches. He’s worked himself into a very good place.”
Melancon has allowed only two runs (one earned) to score over his last 22 outings, lowering his ERA to 2.20 in the process, and converted a career-high 17 consecutive save opportunities. He’s second in the National League with 19 saves on the season.
Hindsight being 20/20, Melancon’s rough stretch looks like an aberration. Because of that, Melancon says the outcry was “of course” an overreaction as his arm still rounded into form.
“You’re going to have that at some point in the season whether it’s early, late or middle so you have to understand that,” Melancon said. “That’s why it gets blown up because so many people don’t understand that.”
Searage, lauded for his ability to help pitchers improve their mechanics and sometimes save careers, said there was no mechanical adjustment that allowed Melancon to have success again. Rather, Melancon had to focus on his command.
“It was just that point in time we had to help him try to get through that and what he lacked in velocity at that point in time he was able to master with control,” Searage said.
To boot, the velocity showed signs of return in May as his cutter averaged 90.43 miles per hour over 12 2/3 innings. In five June appearances so far, Melancon’s cutter is up to 91.56 miles per hour and Hurdle noted he was at 92-93 once again when the Pirates were in Atlanta last weekend.
Searage and Co. expected the velocity to return all along and now that it has, Melancon is once again the dominant presence at the back-end of the Pirates bullpen.
As a result, hitters slugged just .282 in May against Melancon’s cutter and their hard-hit rate dropped to 22 percent. Through five June outings, Melancon has yielded only three hits and an unearned run over 5 2/3 innings.
“It’s tough to be patient, but you know [the velocity’s] going to be there and there was nothing that was indicating he was hurt or anything like that,” Searage said. “Now he’s got his control with his velocity.”