In April, we wondered where Mark Melancon's velocity had gone, and Melancon had an ugly month that somehow only cost the Pirates one game (April 21 against the Cubs). Now we're into May, and the velocity still isn't there. Saturday night, it increased, with Melancon topping out at over 92 MPH. Sunday, it was back in the 89-90 MPH range.
Everything here is subject to change. We don't know why Melancon isn't throwing as hard as he used to. Maybe the velocity will come back. Maybe it can return to where it was Saturday once he has a day of rest. But -- and I know it sounds strange to say this when Melancon has pitched eight straight scoreless innings -- I'm tired of waiting. Melancon isn't the same pitcher he was last year. He's a fundamentally different guy. The new Melancon might be good enough to be somewhat effective as a middle reliever. But he probably isn't good enough to pitch high-leverage situations.
So far this season, Melancon's K/9 is down from 9.0 to 5.7. That's an enormous difference, like going from 2014 Madison Bumgarner to 2014 Eric Stults. His BB/9 is up from 1.4 to 2.5 -- again, a huge difference. His xFIP remains respectable, at 3.70, in part because, to his credit, his ground ball rate has remained very high. But it's still a run and a quarter higher than it was last year. And if you want to play results, his ERA has doubled, from 1.90 to 3.77.
These are, of course, very small sample sizes. But there's reason to believe they reflect at least a degree of truth, since Melancon's fastball/cutter velocities have dropped from 91-93 MPH last year to 88-89 MPH this season. And the result, statistically, is that Mark Melancon now looks more like the 2014 version of Jamey Wright (few strikeouts, too many walks, lots of ground balls) than the 2014 version of himself.
It's possible that this is unfair, that I'm making way too much of 14 1/3 innings. But based on the velocity drop, and the fact that relievers are mostly marginal, combustible players, the best information available here suggests that Melancon is clearly much worse now than he was in 2014.
Melancon's still-strong ground ball rate and the slim possibility that his 2014 self might return give him a place on this team. The Pirates shouldn't give up on him, and they don't even need to rule out the possibility that he'll close in the future. But by keeping him in the closer role now, they're playing with fire. As I pointed out yesterday in a series of agitated tweets on the subject, the only guy since the start of the 2013 season who had 15 or more saves in a season with a K/9 below six was LaTroy Hawkins last year. Melancon, today, is a closer in name only. As a closer, he's a throwback to a time when relievers weren't nearly as good as they are now, when you could be Danny Graves, or Bob Wickman, or Mike Williams in a good year, and kind of get away with closing for awhile, because you weren't intolerably awful and you were known as a guy who could close. You know, those guys you used to pick in the 18th round of your fantasy drafts.
People usually defended those pitchers by admitting they weren't that great but arguing that they just knew how to get the job done. Those were dubious arguments, and there's a reason guys like that don't usually close anymore. If your position is that Melancon just knows how to get the job done, I'd ask how you know that, given that he's already blown one game and hasn't had that many opportunities to mess up since he started throwing 88. Even a weaker reliever can string together a few successful saves in a row if given the chance. That doesn't mean he should get that chance, or that his team isn't taking serious risks.
Today, most teams have a Tony Watson, a player who throws gas and is clearly, markedly better than a Danny Graves type. Arquimedes Caminero, too, would probably be a better closer than Melancon, although his track record is sketchy enough that it might make sense to wait on that (and besides, it's smarter financially to use Watson, since he only has two years of control left). Obviously, being a closer doesn't always mean pitching the highest-leverage innings, but Melancon shouldn't pitch high-leverage innings of any type right now.
In a perfect world, I might continue letting Melancon pitch the occasional save situation with a three-run lead, but otherwise I'd save him for lower-leverage spots -- up by four, down by two and in need of a ground ball, and so on. I'd use Watson and Jared Hughes in higher-leverage spots with runners on, and would also use Watson, if I hadn't already burned him, in one-run and two-run save situations, with Caminero and Hughes (who's having a fantastic season, incidentally) picking up the rest.
The Pirates are surely aware that Melancon is a problem. So why don't they do something like I propose in the last paragraph? The obvious answer (as I think WTM pointed out in the comments a couple weeks ago) is that there isn't much recent precedent for it. If a guy is a closer, you don't make him a non-closer until he proves he can't handle the job by blowing a bunch of saves and giving everyone fits. The problem is that if Melancon blows a bunch of saves, the Pirates will lose a bunch of games, and I'd hate to see the Pirates wait to address the problem until that happens.
And even then, the way teams typically address a closer problem is to replace their closer with another guy who occupies the same role. Watson would be the natural choice to replace Melancon, but moving Watson directly into the closer role would actually be a shame, since he's so important in his current role. In the abstract, the best solution would be to take a fluid approach, but teams rarely do that, and I'm in no position to say what effect that might have on team chemistry.
In the end, then, I'm not sure what the best solution is. But I do know that much of the Pirates' success in the past couple years has been built on implementing new strategies that players might see as being disruptive. Travis Sawchik, in his new book Big Data Baseball (which comes out soon and which you most definitely should read), explains that Dan Fox, Mike Fitzgerald and Nick Leyva had to sell the Pirates' players on their shifting strategy, which (literally) removed their infielders from their comfort zones and forced them to think somewhat differently about their approach to defense. Not everyone got on board, leading to discomfort in the clubhouse, but the team was better off in the long run. If only they could take a similarly proactive approach to their closer. Not everyone would like it, but it would likely make the team better.
Until then, they'll likely continue to go with Melancon until he just becomes too frustrating. Maybe that won't happen. Maybe an entire season will go by, and the Pirates won't get burned. Jim Johnson recently had a couple very successful years as the Orioles' closer with a statistical profile somewhat similar to what we've seen from Melancon so far this year (although Johnson threw a lot harder). Or maybe Melancon's velocity will return, and he'll go back to being the pitcher he was in 2014. But based on everything we've seen so far, I wouldn't bet on it. Melancon, today, isn't a closer, and if he hadn't already been one in the past, the Pirates wouldn't make him one.