Mark Melancon quietly returning to all-star form
The Pittsburgh Pirates currently sit nine games over .500 and in first place in the National League Wild Card. There are plenty of reasons for this. The starting staff, led by Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett, has helped propel the Pirates to the second-best ERA in all of baseball at 2.90. Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and Starling Marte have been key pieces of the offense, even though the offense has struggled as a whole. Francisco Cervelli and his unmatched pitch framing ability leads the majors in defensive runs saved via pitch framing at 11.7, according to StatCorner. And Jung Ho Kang has been a welcomed addition to the bench and as a starting infield option.
But for some reason, Mark Melancon hasn’t garnered much attention. Maybe that’s because of his early season struggles. His velocity issues have been well-documented this season, and fuel was added to the fire after two starts in April when Melancon gave up three earned runs in both appearances, one of which resulted in a loss. But manager Clint Hurdle maintained his faith in his closer, and that faith has paid off. Maybe Melancon’s velocity hasn’t completely returned to the form it was in the past few seasons, but he’s never been a closer that relies on velocity anyways. He relies on his cutter (like the great Mariano Rivera did), which can be seemingly unhittable at times. Fortunately for Melancon, that recipe has worked for two-plus seasons now.
Since his three-run meltdown against the Chicago Cubs on April 21st, Melancon has allowed just one run in 21 appearances, and hasn’t allowed a run since May 11th against Philadelphia. He’s only blown one save on the year and currently leads the majors in saves with 24. After that April 21st appearance, Melancon’s ERA sat at a robust 8.53. Since that point, Melancon’s ERA has dropped to a more-than respectable 1.72. His WHIP sits under one at 0.98, and he’s been worth 1.3 wins above replacement, according to ESPN. His FIP does sit at 3.08, according to Fangraphs, so me may be due for some regression. But overall, for a bullpen that has seen its share of poor play early in the year, this recovery by Melancon has been a welcome one.
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Melancon makes up one piece of a formidable two-man back-end of the bullpen for the Pirates. Tony Watson, the Pirates’ setup man and potential closer-in-waiting, holds a 1.69 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP and has been good for 1.3 wins above replacement, according to ESPN. Watson’s FIP, according to Fangraphs, is a little better than Melancon’s at 2.70. Both of these two have a chance to make the all-star game for the National League this year.
Melancon’s presence in the ninth inning has been a necessary one for the Pirates this season. Although his FIP has gone up each year since 2013, when he first became a Pirate, he’s been needed to lock down games as the Pittsburgh offense hasn’t been able to give Melancon much rest this year. In the offseason, I could see the Pirates dangling Melancon, who would be due for a raise, for a solid return, and move Watson to the closer role. After all, that’s how General Manager Neal Huntington does business. Sell high, buy low, and the keep the farm system replenished. He traded away Jason Grilli last season, and even though the return wasn’t great (Ernesto Frieri held a 7.34 ERA in 2014 and was designated for assignment by the team and has a 4.63 ERA this year with Tampa Bay), it was the right move, considering how well Melancon has pitched in his absence.
Melancon will most likely make the all-star team this year. Last season, seven relief pitchers were selected in the National League, and his league-leading save total will stand out to NL manager Bruce Bochy. His sub-two ERA and sub-one WHIP will also stand out, and his role as the Pirates’ closer will give him prominence over middle relief pitchers. All in all, Mark Melancon has recovered tremendously from his two poor starts early in the year. Outside of those two starts, he’s given up only one run on the season. He’s a dominant closer that will be a key component of the Pirates’ success moving forward this year as the team pushes for the playoffs.