Let’s get this out of the way at the start. By all appearances, Mark Melancon seems like a great guy. Most androids usually are. I’m sure there are times in between tune-ups that they get a little cranky, but some routine maintenance is all they need to reboot back to normal.
The matter at hand is that Mark Melancon, version 1.2, is breaking down and no longer effective. Melancon 1.0 was going to be Mariano Rivera’s heir apparent until he was traded to the Astros in 2010. He closed for them in 2011, then was moved to the Red Sox prior to the 2012 season. Melancon version 1.1 was a disaster in Boston, mostly due to an impossibly high HR rate, and was demoted to AAA for a time. The Pirates obtained him the Joel Hanrahan trade and the Pitcher Whisper (Ray Searage) rebuilt him to his current state.
The easy answer for Melancon’s troubles is his decreased velocity on his fastball. A 1 mph drop year-over-year is cause to raise a yellow flag. A 2 mph drop gets the heart racing and a red flag run up the pole. When you drop 3.6 mph from one year to the next, as Melancon has done, it’s time to schedule a visit to Dr. James Andrews. A 30-year old reliever simply doesn’t lose that much velocity by the normal rigors of time in one annum.
Fangraphs has a section for each pitcher (Plate Discipline) that shows how batters fare with pitches both inside and outside of the zone. The stat O-Swing% is the percentage of pitches that hitters swing at OUTSIDE the zone. In Melancon’s first two years with the Pirates, his O-Swing% was a steady 41.3% and 40.6%. This year, it has dropped down to 34.3%.
By the same methodology, O-Contact% is the percentage of time that a hitter makes contact with pitches OUTSIDE the zone. In 2013 and 2014, Melancon’s O-Contact% was 61.2% and 54.5%, respectively, but this year it has risen to a career high 64.6%.
So hitters are laying off his pitches outside the zone, primarily his cutter to right-handed batters, but when they are swinging they’re making more contact. This is also reflected in the drastically lower Swinging Strike rate from 13.9% last year to 9.0% this year. In a Q&A session with GM Neal Huntington on Wednesday, I asked him about the issues with his cutter getting hit more often. He said that the Pirates look for “shortness, sharpness, and lateness” on the cutter, meaning it has to break after the hitter has made his decision to swing.
When you take the reduced velocity, the reduced swinging strike rate, and the outside-the-zone contact issues, stir them all together in a numerical bouillabaise, you get the sub-par numbers of 2015 Melancon:
- Strikeouts per 9 inning — 5.40, down from 9.00 last year
- Walks per 9 inning — 2.45, up from 1.39 last year
- Home runs per 9 inning — 0.98, up from 0.25 last year
- ERA/FIP — 3.44/4.18, up from 1.90/2.09 last year
Huntington attributed the reduced velocity to Melancon’s different offseason throwing program. He feels that in the next few weeks, the velocity will pick up to the 92-93 mph range that everyone is more accustomed to seeing.
Where do the Pirates go from here? The first step is to get Melancon rigorously examined via a MRI scan and/or examined by Dr. Andrews. If he’s OK, the Pirates must switch him out of the closer role — every outing has become a heart-stopping roller coaster ride — and put him into a lower leverage role. The Pirates can insert Watson as the de facto closer, put Hughes as the 8th inning setup position, and shift Melancon into the 7th inning role.
According to Huntington, the Pirates are “monitoring the back end market” in case a trade possibility arises. However, he says with the advent of the 2nd Wild Card, more and more teams hang on before selling then ever before and the ones that are already out of it may not want to run up the white flag just yet. By my estimation, there are 5 teams that should be thinking about selling, or at least re-positioning assets, as it doesn’t look like 2015 is going to end well for them. Are there relievers that may interest the Pirates?
- Milwaukee (15-26) — Francisco Rodriguez (10.2 K/9, 1.2 BB/9, 1.20 ERA, 2.12 FIP) would be a good fit, but the deferred $2M and $2M buyout could be a sticking point. Lefty Will Smith is very intriguing to me (12.79 K/9, 4.26 BB/9, 2.13 ERA, 1.70 FIP), as he would allow Watson to close and then assume the setup role as another power lefty.
- Philadelphia (18-24) — Jonathan Papelbon (11.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.50 ERA, 2.46 FIP) is doing quite well, but his $13M 2016 salary is almost certain to vest with 55 games finished. His personality may not be a good fit in the clubhouse, either.
- Colorado (14-23) — Rafael Betancourt is 40 years old, but has kept on truckin’ (10.2 K/9, 1.2 BB/9, 3.60 ERA, 1.26 FIP) and could slide into either the setup or closer spot.
- Oakland (14-28) — Tyler Clippard has been somewhat disappointing with the A’s this year (7.50 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 2.50 ERA, 4.24 FIP), but he could be a buy-low sort of move.
- Cleveland (16-23) — Their bullpen, or lack thereof, is most of the reason the Tribe is in this unexpected mess. Due to high walk rates, I don’t see any interesting fits here.
I would love if Mark Melancon can get his servos re-oiled and a new chip installed to bring him back to his 2013-14 form, but the Pirates can’t wait on him to rebound forever. If a move is available to be made, they need to do it sooner rather than later, especially since the remainder of the bullpen has been fairly underwhelming aside from Watson and Hughes.