Mark Melancon's down-and-up year: Why he struggled, and why he recovered

Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE

Mark Melancon, who, along with Jerry Sands, headlined the Pirates' return in the Joel Hanrahan trade, had a down-and-up year in 2012. He pitched horribly in April, got demoted, and then returned in June and steadily improved his numbers, culminating with some brilliant work late in the year. I watched several of his outings, from both early in the year and from the end. What the Pirates are getting, I think, is a pitcher who can be toxic against right-handed batters, but who probably shouldn't be used too frequently against lefties. Also, obviously, the Bucs will be hoping that Melancon doesn't have the problems with command that plagued him at the beginning of the 2012 season.

I started by watching Melancon's April 17 outing against the Texas Rangers. Melancon allowed three home runs in an 18-3 loss. The next time he pitched after that was for Pawtucket.

Against the Rangers, Melancon began by throwing two 93-MPH fastballs right down the middle to Ian Kinsler, who hit the second one hard to left. Cody Ross misjudged it, and Kinsler wound up with a double. Melancon then threw four straight balls to Elvis Andrus.

Melancon managed an 0-2 count against Josh Hamilton, but Hamilton fought back until Melancon threw a thoroughly terrible curveball that broke right over the middle, and Hamilton hit a light-tower shot. The next pitch, to Adrian Beltre, was a terrible fastball right down the middle, and Beltre homered on that one, too. Then Melancon walked David Murphy. Then he went to 2-2 against Nelson Cruz, and tried to whiff him with a breaking ball that didn't get particularly near the plate. The next pitch was a fastball at the knees, and Cruz crushed it.

Melancon was, in a sense, unlucky to have three pitches leave the park, but his pitching in this outing was indeed awful, and if I were the Red Sox and he'd done that after giving up runs in all of his first three outings as well, I would have demoted him at that point, too. He had no idea where his pitches were going, and he was really just trying to get them near the zone and hoping for the best.

Next, I watched Melancon's September 8 outing against the Blue Jays, then his September 26 outing against Tampa Bay. Melancon posted amazing numbers down the stretch, striking out 13 batters and walking one in 10 innings in September and October.

Against the Jays, he began by whiffing Yunel Escobar on three straight pitches -- a fastball, then a curveball, then a high fastball. Right away, the differences between his April outing and this one were obvious. He threw his fastball as hard as 96 MPH, and unlike in the outing against the Rangers, it seemed as if there was a clear distinction between his four-seamer and his cutter, which came in around 93 MPH. Also, his curveball did what it's supposed to do -- rather than breaking over the heart of the plate or bouncing way in front of it, his curve looked like it was coming into the zone and then diving at the last second. Between the curve and the cutter, it's clear why Melancon gets so many ground balls.

The distinction between a "fastball" and a "cutter" is subtle, and I don't want to toss around those words too arbitrarily to describe what I'm seeing. (Strangely, I had a conversation with Mark Hanrahan a couple weeks ago after I wrote about his brother's drop in velocity in 2012. Mark thought that might have to do with Joel having thrown more cutters. It wasn't an easy conversation to resolve, and I'm not absolutely sure Mark was wrong.) Here's what I'm seeing with Melancon, though. The pitch he throws the most seems to range from 91-94 MPH and moves a fair amount, but he can also throw a harder, straighter pitch that comes in around 96. He doesn't throw 96 all that often, though, probably because he doesn't want batters to sit on that pitch.

In any case, when Melancon is on, he looks terrifying against righties. He moves his curveball and various gradations of his fastball all over the inner part of the plate against them, so when his command is there, he's very tough to figure out. In the bad outing I watched, the one against the Rangers, Melancon threw a couple of changeups, perhaps partly because he wasn't confident in his fastball command. Against the Jays and Rays, he threw none at all.

Melancon allowed an .875 OPS against lefties last year, and a .655 OPS against righties. Those numbers are more dramatic than his career splits, but Melancon's lack of a good changeup and his obvious skill at manipulating righties by varying fastball velocity and location and by pitching inside (again, when his command is good) suggest that the ideal role for him might be as a high-leverage reliever who is used situationally. (UPDATE: By which I mean that you want to use him in innings where at least a couple righty batters will come up, not that you want to use him as a ROOGY. He's way too interesting for that.) I'm not sure he should be a closer. That way, his manager can have more flexibility to use him primarily against righties.

Melancon's last bad outing of the year came August 31 against the Athletics, and Oakland's lineup had one lefty or switch-hitter after another. If the Pirates are going to get the most out of Melancon, Clint Hurdle needs to be smart about getting him in there against righties as much as possible. Melancon probably shouldn't be the type of late-inning pitcher who you just hand a generic eighth-inning role to. I have little confidence Hurdle will use Melancon the right way, but if he does, the Pirates will likely have something pretty nice on their hands.

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