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Is it too early to panic about Mark Melancon’s velocity?

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Most player-related concerns early in the season tend to be premature. For example, if a player’s name were to rhyme with, oh, I don’t know, ‘Marling Sarte,’ he’s probably unlikely to continue striking out in roughly half of his plate appearances. But a question from Pedropower in the most recent Ask Bucs Dugout has more merit than the usual small-sample size panics of the early season. Here it is:

"How should we interpret the steep drop in Mark Melancon's velocity? His average and max velocity on his cutter looks to be down about 3 mph so far this year. This has been the case in all of his appearances so far in 2015. Do you think this foretells some sort of injury or may cause Pirates to move him from the closer role to be replaced with Tony Watson?"

Pedropower’s question is notable not only for its prescience with regard to a very real and pressing issue for Melancon, but for spawning this particular gem from IAPiratesFan:

"My question along those lines, is it time to panic? Without knowing exactly what the problem is would you say it’s time to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?"

I salute you, IAPiratesFan, for flawlessly anticipating the exigencies of the coming zombie apocalypse. In that spirit, this article will present the following three conclusions:

  1. Yes, Melancon’s velocity is down quite a bit
  2. Yes, you should be worried
  3. No, you should not crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside

Melancon’s velocity is down

Here’s a look at how Melancon’s average velocity has changed over his career:

Melancon’s four-seam and cutter velocity have been remarkably consistent over the course of his career, sitting in the low to mid 90s. This year, his average cutter velocity is 88.7 mph.

Pitchers often gain velocity over the course of the season, and Melancon has, in the past, sometimes started slowly. But his 2015 velocity is off-the-charts low—he’s lost several mph on all of his pitches, which is more than we’d expect to see even with potential age-related decline. If we take the average velocity chart above and break it down on a game-by-game basis, we can see that Melancon has just posted the lowest velocity games of his career:

You should be concerned

Obviously, this isn’t ideal. The Pirates have acknowledged as much, with Clint Hurdle stating that the team would be monitoring Melancon’s velocity. In this case, it’s the process that’s more worrisome than the result—closers have subpar outings all the time, but gigantic velocity decreases are less common.

This is especially concerning because we know that fastball velocity tends to stabilize very quickly, sometimes after a few pitches. And research by Mike Fast indicates that 1 mph of velocity change is worth approximately 0.4 RA/9 for relievers, meaning that very, very few relievers can afford to lose that much fastball zip. If this is the new Melancon, he’s unlikely to be as effective as the old Melancon.

All of this is to say that from the organization’s perspective there should be quite a bit of investment in figuring out what’s wrong and whether it’s fixable. The simplest explanation, as noted in the original question, would be an undisclosed injury. Hurdle’s comments lead me to believe that this isn’t the case, or that at the very least that the team is not aware of any injury. It could be age-related decline, but generally pitchers don’t lose velocity this quickly. Or it could be something mechanical.

As Travis Sawchik noted, Melancon’s release point is much higher than it’s been in previous years—he’s drifted upwards by several inches on all of his pitches.

If a release point change is what’s bothering him, the prognosis might be a bit more hopeful. Melancon has shifted his release point several times throughout his career, and if a minor mechanical adjustment can fix him, we may forget about all of this in a few weeks.

In the meantime, Hurdle is right: it’s a situation worth monitoring.