Mark Melancon: should Pittsburgh Pirates fans be concerned?


Mark Melancon hasn’t had a pretty start to the season. Heading into Friday night’s action, Melancon has a 6.75 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP over four innings pitched. On the positive side, he has three strikeouts and just one walk. And all three earned runs Melancon’s given up this year were in one bad inning. Heck, it’s a small sample size. But you don’t want your closer giving up runs. It’s still early. What is of concern with Melancon, however, is his apparent drop in velocity.

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Travis Sawchik, Pittsburgh Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, had an article recently about Melancon’s drop in velocity this season (the article can be seen here). According to PITCHf/x, via Sawchik, Melancon’s cutter (his go-to pitch) averaged 91.8 miles-per-hour over the course of last season. This season, in the month of April, Melancon’s cutter is averaging 88.7 miles-per-hour. This isn’t just a few ticks off. That’s a good three mph drop from last season. One positive is that Melancon doesn’t seem too concerned about it. From the article:

"“I think it’s just early,” Melancon said. “Obviously I’d like to have (velocity) at peak and keep it at peak. I don’t have any worries of it not ever getting back. I’ve always felt like I increased (velocity) throughout the year. My routine in the offseason is always the same.”"

A drop in velocity is often indicative of an injury. When pitchers begin to feel discomfort or pain in their throwing arm, they can’t throw as hard, thus leading to a drop in velocity. And any discomfort automatically triggers the worst thoughts in the heads of fans, i.e. Tommy John surgey. Sawchik also notes a change in Melancon’s release point:

Could Melancon be favoring his throwing arm? Maybe. It’s still early, and a larger sample size is definitely needed before making any definitive conclusion about Melancon. Relief pitchers often need time to warm up, more so than starting pitchers, considering the limited amount of innings they pitch. Luckily for the Pirates, if his velocity continues to remain low, and the worst case scenario (Tommy John surgery) comes true, the team is blessed to have a plethora of potential options to take over for him. Tony Watson is coming off an incredible All-Star season and has been considered by some to be a closer-in-waiting. John Holdzkom excited everyone at the end of last season and is waiting in the minors, while flamethrower Arquimedes Caminero has the speed on his fastball that is coveted in a closer.

The shelf life for closers is often limited. Should we be concerned about Mark Melancon? No, at least not yet. Yes, a velocity drop is concerning. But it’s not significant until a larger sample size is accrued. Check back with Melancon in late May or June to see where he stands. After all, age, fatigue, and early season jitters can all factor into this as well. For now, let’s focus on his next few outings and go from there.

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