When it was announced over the weekend that Joel Hanrahan would need surgery and miss the rest of the 2013 season, it was another misstep in the Boston Red Sox's efforts to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Boston has both spent money and traded valued assets in order to find Papelbon’s successor, but finds itself without a solution after 27 months. Meanwhile, one of the discarded pieces to that puzzle is off to a stellar start with his new team.
Mark Melancon was one of the early efforts by Boston to fill the gap, the Red Sox surrendering Jed Lowrie to acquire the right-handed reliever from Houston after the 2011 season. Melancon had done the job rather well in Houston, but failed on a large scale in 2012. Earned run averages are not the best way to evaluate a relief pitcher, because one or two rough outings can yield an unattractive ERA that hides good skills. While he had better-than-league-average strikeout and walk rates for a relief pitcher, Melancon's 6.20 ERA made his 2012 season look much worse than it truly was. Melancon's six worst outings spanned just 2.2 innings but included 23 earned runs, many of which came early in the season in high-leverage situations.
Melancon's inclusion in the Hanrahan trade with the Pirates ensured that he would get a fresh start under less pressure. To date, he is taking full advantage.
In watching Melancon pitch this season, he has made some obvious changes to his mechanics. In 2012, he had a more upright delivery to the plate that included a higher raise of his front leg. That delivery has changed in 2013, as he has included a bit of a crouch to his upper body while reducing the height of his maximum leg lift before opening up toward home plate.
These changes are noticeable in the images to the right, taken from the same camera angles in late August 2012 and earlier this month.
The mechanical changes are only part of Melancon's success; he has also radically adjusted the sequencing of his pitching. Melancon is a three-pitch reliever, featuring a fastball, curveball and cut fastball. Last season, he threw his fastball nearly as much as he used his cut fastball, throwing that combination 70 percent of the time. That particular pitch mixture is not a dangerous recipe on its own, but when combined with poor location, it is very problematic -- as Melancon discovered.
Melancon simply does not have the type of stuff to throw his pitches with that frequency over the heart of the plate. Even with the ability to throw three pitches for strikes, he simply found too much of the plate with regularity, which helps explain some of the disastrous outings.
In 2013, the combination of mechanical changes and sequencing is paying off handsomely in both pitch results and pitch location. Melancon is now leaning heavily on his cut fastball, throwing it 67 percent of the time; he is using his standard fastball 18 percent of the time and his breaking ball 16 percent. The changes in both pitch outcomes and location from 2012 to 2013 are rather dramatic.
2012: 21.1 percent
2013: 28.6 percent
2012: 63.9 percent
2013: 72.3 percent
2012: 24.9 percent
2013: 45.8 percent
Ground ball rate
2012: 50.7 percent
2013: 65.3 percent
Throwing the cut fastball with increased regularity has allowed Melancon to find the outer edges of the strike zone more frequently, which has led to a combination of desirable pitch outcomes. In terms of pitch results, batters currently have a .432 OPS against him, a 322-point drop from last season. In 194 plate appearances last season, opposing hitters hit eight home runs; through 70 plate appearances in 2013, only Joey Votto has homered off Melancon.
The sample size in 2013 is still small to legitimize what Melancon is doing or to predict what he might do the rest of the season. The success he is finding in Pittsburgh should not be written off as purely a change in environment -- just as it was not the only reason A.J. Burnett has put his career back on track after leaving a bad situation in New York. Melancon has made demonstrable changes in his entire process and those deserve more credit than the simple change of mailing address.
Given the recent loss of Hanrahan and the continued health troubles with Andrew Bailey, Boston could regret discarding what might have been the right piece after all.
Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Rays, and contributes to Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter @jasoncollette.