Mark Melancon Proving Rocky Start an Aberration

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.”

  • You don’t need an upper 90’s fastball to be a dominant closer. You just need 1 dominant pitch and some average ones tp keep the hitters off balance. That is exactly what Mariano Rivera was. “The Cutter” The best closer that ever lived and it just so happens that he is who taught Melancon how to throw it..Melancon’s cutter is as hard to square up as any pitch in baseball.

    • True, but you do want to have Rivera type speed. Which was around 92-93 most of his career, 91ish for the cutter. Rivera also is a rather special case, so accounting for not having his level of talent or whatever, its nice to take whatever you learn from him and keep the velo around normal career levels. Melancon at 90ish just is a less effective guy. Still good, but needing more help via defense and BABIP fortune.

  • Melancon is an interesting case, the closer role isn’t really that important, and saves and the number converted don’t tell you much about the effectiveness of an individual pitcher.

    Jim Johnson saved a lot of games, which isn’t bad, I would just rather have Melancon be one of the top five relievers in baseball and not a Jim Johnson clone.

    It is nice that his velocity is trending upward, hopefully the swing and miss stuff returns also, because he won’t run a .198 BABIP on his cutter forever. Possibly with the drop in velocity some interplay has been lost with his curve ball, and the whiff rate has dropped to 13.3% after average 24.8% over the previous two seasons.

  • We’re conditioned to believe a Closer needs to strike out a minimum of 1/IP to be successful long-term, but I believe a Closer who doesn’t give up many hard hit balls can be more successful. I call it the Greg Maddux theory.

    I know Madduz wasn’t a Closer, but does anybody actually believe he wouldn’t have been a bulldog in that role, too?

  • Uh…. okay. I’m just not going to comment other than to say, any game i’ve watched with a speed gun shown every pitch has yet to register a single pitch at 93 MPH. Not one. I’ve seen maybe 2-3 pitches which were 4 seamers hit that mark this year, but not a single cutter. Anyone got a screencap to prove me wrong?

    • http://www.brooksbaseball.net/velo.php?player=453343&b_hand=-1&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=game&minmax=ci&var=maxmph&s_type=2&startDate=01/01/2015&endDate=01/01/2016

      • a screencap during the game, following a pitch which was a cutter where he hit 93 with it saying 93 on the tv screen dude, comeon now. Anyone who dvr’s the games should have it. If someone can provide this proof, i’ll buy the next year of their subscription.

        • How in the hell is someone supposed to prove the previous pitch was a cutter and not a four seamer from a screen capture?

          • I DVR every game, tell me pitch number and date i’ll pull it up

          • putting all this aside though, i’m really really tired of being argued with on things people can’t substantiate. If I make a statement and you want to prove me wrong, then give me proof, otherwise don’t respond just to argue, I don’t care who you are, its just annoying. The good news is that his (melancon’s)velocity HAS increased, and while he is NOT hitting 93 with his cutter, 91 is still way better than 88 or 89. it’s to a point now where he can be effective. Actually, very quietly the same thing has happened for bastardo, he is hitting 94 and 95 occasionally where early in the season he was barely touching 92 max

      • NMR- my original comment was purely of an observational nature and was requesting an observational response. A chart which shows me one one shred of observational evidence of these 93 mph pitches does not provide a valid argument

        • Brooks Baseball may have made some corrections to the raw data.

          By their data, Melancon has thrown four pitches over 93 mph.

        • Even if you dont trust stats, how does what you said make sense? Ignoring any type of background or ill will or whatever, im genuinely asking how that makes sense.

    • I have not seen a pitch past 92 MPH. Were you serious about the Grilli comment?

    • So that obviously didn’t link as planned…

      • no, i mean a screencap of a pitch which was a cutter during the game shown at 93 mph. Just 1 pitch, not a damn chart of statistics

        • They did flash a chart of his increase in velocity since April, and I thought that the most recent average was 91.8 mph, up about 3 mph since April. My position expressed in April was completely wrong. I advocated turning it over to Watson and putting MM on the DL. He had nothing but guile, and he fought through it successfully. I hope he continues to increase to around an average of 93 which is where he has been in past years. Once they cannot sit on the offspeed stuff, the K’s will come.

      • Thats funny, because the chart I brought up from the website after sorting it correctly shows this…. MonthCutter 4/15
        89.33

        5/15
        90.43

        6/15
        91.58

        Your chart is obviously incorrect because it is showing his 4 seamer as slower than his cutter which is wrong

        • Haha, keep telling yourself that, buddy.

          • I pulled it up with your link, the numbers from your chart were for the 4 seamer, the numbers i put up were for the cutter from the same exact site, just resorting for the cutter. Go ahead and double check your resources my friend…..

  • I’ve never been high on melancon to many guys get on base along with a plethora of 3-2 counts when he closes for me to have a malox free ninth, I have also said many times that he gets the job done. So I guess I’ll just go buy a case of malox with a side order of rolaids. : )

    • That’s the spirit. He doesn’t put many on base so hopefully the malox lasts you a season.

    • I’d trade him right now even up to get Grilli back- thought trading Grilli to begin with was stupid

      • No grilli, even though the shark makes me nervous.

      • The alternative was moving him into a 7th inning type role, and many accounts seemed to suggest Grilli was not okay with that idea. Didnt love the move, but if the choice was an ill content Grilli (not a soft spoken man) or moving him i dont hate the choice. Im not much for the idea of “chemistry” but i like to avoid actively pissing off a player and having him brood. He earned not being the closer.

  • -Control+F
    -Search for “strikeout”
    -0 results found

    How do you write an article about how everything is fine with Melancon and not note that he’s still only striking guys out barely at 50% of his career rate?

    • Because he’s been the best closer in baseball the last 6 weeks.

    • It would make me feel better if he threw the ball more like Caminero and blew people away but it’s not who he is. I’m a big WHIP guy and his career rate is 1.09. He doesn’t walk a lot of guys. Doesn’t give up a lot of HR’s. He’s been pitching successfully this way for too long for it to be coincidental. He’s got great command.

    • Darkstone42
      June 11, 2015 1:31 pm

      His strikeout rate dipped in May, but is recovering in June, and his walk rate is starting to plummet. As the velocity continues to recover, the Ks will start to climb.

      • He’s been living and dying with his curveball quite honestly. He is lucky that it’s been there for him on most nights

        • Oh yeah?

          “As a result, hitters slugged just .282 in May against Melancon’s cutter and their hard-hit rate dropped to 22 percent.”

          • I know it’s the Brewers and all but even before last night – I don’t think teams hit him that hard. You can have all the stuff you want, take Bryan Morris for example, but if you’re leaving the ball over the plate, walking guys, etc. – what good are you? What separates Melancon and the reason he gets away with low 90’s is his command in my opinion.

            • I’m squarely in the middle on this one.

              The lack of strikeouts *are* concerning and *will* make it more difficult to sustain this level of success.

              But it’s just silly to focus solely on that without acknowledging how tight his command has sharpened and how many more ground balls he’s generating. I honestly think it’s just plain stubbornness not to see that at this point. Lot of guys were predicting doom, and that obviously has not come.

              • i’ll give you that, command is way better and CURVEball command has been great. The way our defense is playing though, i’d prefer a strikeout rate for my closer to be higher

                • Now I will agree with the assessment of Pirates IF defense. Putrid isn’t a strong enough word to describe it lately.

            • Since April 23rd, 22 outings, he’s given up just two walks, only allowed opponents only a 21% outfield fly ball rate and just an 8.5% line drive rate.

              If you don’t give up free bases and suppress the two most valuable types of contact you can absolutely be a quality reliever.

              • Agreed. Look, when you strikeout a guy you don’t have to worry about bad defense, seeing eye singles, funny hops and later bunts and a sac fly that ties the game. But right now people just aren’t squaring him up and that’s based on excellent command in my opinion.

          • That doesn’t speak to my comment. His curveball usage increase and sharpness is the only thing keeping them off that lackluster cutter. I’m not saying it isn’t better now than it was on aptil 15th, but if you think its what it was last year, you are blind

            • If you think its only his curve that is keeping him effective, you are blind. He used the curve 24% of the time last year via Fangraphs. Fangraphs has him at 24.4% so far this year. He hasnt increased usage of that pitch. Unless Fangraphs is really off on its accuracy of what Mark is throwing, his velo drop made him stop throwing the FB, use the cutter a ton, and mix in normal amounts of CB.

              He took his lack of velo and changed how he pitched as a result, and to his credit its working. He’s trying to induce weak contact and limiting walks. I dont encourage that for a closer, since the lack of Ks makes it tougher to sustain this level of success, but his last few outings show a clearly different pitcher than his first month. Velo back, movement better. That, often, leads to more swing and miss stuff.

    • Lies, damn lies and statistics.

      Just because somebody says Pitchers don’t have any control over the outcome of balls put into field of play, doesn’t mean it’s true.

      • They did a little more than just say it.

        • Scott Kliesen
          June 12, 2015 8:16 am

          So the Pirates strategy of developing Pitchers to throw sinkers to get ground balls is a flawed strategy because Pitchers have no control over balls put in play?

          Here’s the real truth, RP’s with high strikeout rates generally have higher fly ball rates. And fly balls have a tendency to end up as homers from time to time. Whereas, RP’s who have high ground ball rates, generally give up fewer HR’s, but may give up more hits because ground balls find holes.

          Do you want a Closer who pitches to contact knowing the other team will need to string together several hits to score, or one who is prone to give up the big fly when he makes a mistake? Pirates prefer the former.

          • The Pirates let Jason Grilli pitch the 8th and 9th innings, Tony Watson pitches in high leverage situations and the Pirates want to expand Caminero’s role. I’m not sure the Pirates prefer ground ball inducing relievers.

            Strike outs are outs 99.7% of the time, even the best relievers, hidden from platoon splits and facing batters once, are getting outs on balls in play 75%.

            And there is not an association between strike outs and home runs allowed for relievers. There is an association between strikeout and runs allowed, mainly because it is hard to score runs when you retire a hitter via a method that will put him on base 0.3% of the time.

  • Wow I hope the PP jinx doesn’t hurt Melancon.

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