Mark Melancon Fits The Bucco's Budget and Bullpen

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Pittsburgh Pirates are at it again. They find themselves over .500, but wondering if they can sustain this success for an entire season. The hitting has been average, and neither their starting rotation nor their bullpen are made up of stars. So from where do the Buccos derive their success?

Earlier this week, Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan wrote a timely and poignant report on Pirates righty* Jason Grilli. Sullivan hopped on the back of the pickup truck as it drove down the "path to MLB success." In this case the vehicle's driver was Grilli, and the path was circuitous, a bit bumpy, but since it wasn't dubbed "path to MLB failure," ended happily. Sullivan spoke of Grilli's tough times, when he was released by the Philadelphia Phillies who could have chosen him over the failed experiment we'll call Danny Baez. That anecdote led to one of my favorite excerpts from Sullivan's piece.

"So they have that to regret. But while that looks like a major mistake in hindsight, Grilli's move to Pittsburgh was such minor news at the time that Grilli broke it himself:"

More interesting than Grilli's awesome sense of humor (His nickname is Grilled Cheese) and love for the city of Pittsburgh, he's been known to sing the words to Wiz Kahlifa's Steel City anthem "Black and Yellow," is that the dominant reliever signed a miniscule, by modern day "closer" standards, 2-year $6.75 million contract with the Buccos. That's a great deal given that the Phillies currently employ the services, when he's used, of Jonathan Papelbon for $13 million per season, and that even a wild thing like Carlos Marmol will make $9 million in 2013.

Sullivan delved into more baseball depth, discussing the changes Grilli made in throwing his slider as a major part of his newfound success. Grilli shows complete dominance against right-handed batters, due in large part to that sharp breaking slider, and the velocity difference between his fastball (~94 mph on average), and his slider (~83 mph on average). Add in Grilli's 70.7% contact percentage compared to a league average of almost 80% and you've got a guy with nasty stuff, lots of strikeouts, and thus far, very few walks.

Still, as I've mentioned, this article doesn't concern Jason Grilli. Sullivan published a fine piece, but instead I will discuss Grilli's Bucco's relief-mate, Mark Melancon. First and foremost, for all of you pronouncing his name Me-lan-cone, let's get it right. According to Baseball-Reference, the proper way to pronounce the righty's last name is \meh-LAN-sen\. Basically he likes Melan"sen(d)" batters back to the dugout, and the Pittsburgh fans home happy.

So, other than another player with a weird last name, who is Mark Melancon? Melancon was drafted out of the University of Arizona in the 9th round of the 2006 MLB rule-4 draft by the New York Yankees. Knowing full well he didn't fit into the evil empire, the Yankees traded him along with Jimmy Peredes to the Houston Astros in exchange for Lance Berkman. After a strong year with the Astros, Melancon was once again given a plane ticket and a new team after the Astros traded him to Boston in exchange for the now Oakland Athletic infielder Jed Lowrie.

After an abysmal season marred by an inability to throw the ball in the strike zone, a tendency to give up too many home runs, and a demotion to the minor leagues, the Sox traded him to the Pirates for Joel Hanrahan. In case you hadn't heard, Hanrahan recently visited with Dr. James Andrews and his scalpel, meaning he'll be good as new in about 12 months.

Melancon throws three pitches, a four-seam fastball, cut-fastball, and curveball. Melancon's pitching motion isn't all over the place. He begins by lifting his front leg and arms at the same time, doing so quickly, with little extra movement. When he comes to his balance point, just before breaking his arms, he begins to rock back on his back foot, which screws up his balance. Still, as is the case for many pitchers, he uses that imbalance to his advantage. The rocking back completely hides the ball from the batter's eye, and when he pushes forward towards the plate, he swings his arm like an old-time pitching machine, almost wind-milling the ball to the plate. This over the top motion combined with the tilt at the top make it seem to a hitter as if the ball is coming out of nowhere, or better yet from behind Melancon's head. Check out a link of Melancon striking out Bryce Harper here.

Given that Melancon throws a straight fastball, a cutter, and a curveball, right-handed hitters especially must have difficulty discerning whether a 92 mph cutter away or 82mph looping curveball is forthcoming. For lefties, this isn't as much of an issue, but if said lefties have even a little trouble picking up the cutter, it may be too late, the pitch will have already buzzed in on their hands, making it difficult to drive, let alone keep the bat in one piece.

Interestingly, Melancon has gained greater success in 2013 by simplifying his repertoire. In 2011 and 2012 he used a changeup, and utilized his full basket of pitches more often, as opposed to 2013. This season, Melancon has thus far made use mostly of his cutter, throwing out the changeup completely, and moving away from his curveball and four-seam fastball.

To RHB

Fourseam

Cutter

Curve

Change Up

2011

32%

33%

29%

1%

2012

28%

29%

37%

1%

2013

14%

72%

14%

-

To LHB

Fourseam

Cutter

Curve

Change Up

2011

38%

12%

26%

5%

2012

35%

20%

22%

9%

2013

18%

65%

18%

-

While pitch usage and velocity prove important to any pitcher, it is that simple real estate adage that constitutes the most vital aspect to any pitcher. Location, location, location! In this department Melancon has excelled in 2013. To left-handed batters he pounds the cutter in on their hands, and when he misses with the pitch, does so low in the zone, instead of in the middle of the plate. He uses his curveball as a back door pitch, throwing it to the outer half of the strike zone, often burying as a ball in the dirt, making it a formidable 2-strike pitch.

Melanconlhb2013_medium

Against right-handed batters, his location varies very little. He throws the cutter towards the outside corner, utilizing it like Grilli's slider, a pitch that looks juicy out over the middle of the plate, but cuts just enough towards the corner or further outside, causing righties to either swing and miss or make weak contact, and most likely hitting the ball on the ground or popping it up in the infield. He utilizes his curveball sparingly to righties, but when used, Melancon throws it towards the outside corner, and given the pitch's drop in velocity combined with nice looping action, it causes many right-handed batters to pop the pitch up. When he uses his four-seam fastball to righties, the pitches are populated more in the lower part of the strike zone, making for fewer mistakes ending in home runs.

Melanconrhb2013_medium

Combine Melancon's new pitching philosophy and success with his incredible valuable miniscule contract of $521,000 in 2013, and the aforementioned Grilli, and the Buccos have themselves an awesome back end of the bullpen. Not to leave you without some of Melancon's awesome 2013 outcomes thus far in 2013, here's a few. Melancon has struck out 22 hitters (28.2% K percentage), and walked 1 batter (1.3% BB percentage). He has a 67.3% ground ball percentage, which is 3rd amongst all relievers in baseball, a 100% left-on-base percentage, 0.43 earned run average, and 1.69 FIP. Most importantly, Melancon has surrendered only one home run thus far in 21 innings pitched, as opposed to 2012 when he gave up 8 round-trippers in 45 innings pitched.

Jason Grilli can't have all the fun, and thus cannot take the credit for all of the Pirate's bullpen success. More importantly, congrats to Bucco's General Manager Neal Huntington who traded away a more expensive reliever in Hanrahan who's currently injured and wasn't pitching well otherwise, for a cheaper, better, and more efficient model. The Pirates get incredible value out of their players, and Melancon epitomizes that frugality and efficiency.

*Note, I would usually use the term "closer" when describing Grilli, but I hate the term, the idea, and think it should be thrown out with the garbage on whichever day your trash is collected.

**Statistics and charts used in this piece came from Frangraphs.com, Brooksbaseball.net, and Texasleaguers.com

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