Eighth wonder: Melancon near perfect in Pirates' setup role
By Bob Cohn
Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Pirates pitcher Mark Melancon rode six hours in a minivan to the All-Star festivities in New York, which might have seemed bothersome except that he got to enjoy his family's company. Also, he probably would have walked if he had to.
Last year at this time, Melancon was buried in the bullpen of the faltering Red Sox. This week, he became a first-time All-Star — replacing injured teammate Jeff Locke — on a club with the second-best record in Major League Baseball. He is vital to a relief corps, nicknamed the “Shark Tank,” whose ERA (2.78) is second lowest among the 30 teams.
Melancon expertly has filled the eighth-inning setup role manned last season by Jason Grilli, now the Pirates' closer. With an 0.81 ERA in 45 appearances, Melancon is making the December trade with Boston look like a steal.
“Mark's been phenomenal,” said Grilli, who has 29 saves in 30 chances and pitched in his first All-Star Game on Tuesday (Melancon didn't get in). “If I wasn't here, he'd be closing.”
When leading after seven innings, the Pirates are 42-2.
The Pirates got Melancon and three prospects from the Red Sox for closer Joel Hanrahan and infielder Brock Holt. Twice an All-Star himself, Hanrahan struggled with his new team before undergoing two arm surgeries that ended his season in May. Holt has started at third base in Boston's past nine games, hitting .300, since his recall from Triple-A on July 6.
A 28-year-old right-hander, Melancon had problems with the Red Sox last season. Acquired in a trade with Houston, he had a 6.20 ERA in 41 games and spent nearly two months in the minors. Melancon said “five or six” bad outings skewed his numbers and his season wasn't as awful as it looked.
But those outings, and being sent down, represented “huge reminders, huge learning points,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself and what a real tough time in the game is. I learned that maybe my approach going into the game needed to change a little bit.
“I don't think you can tell that my attitude on the mound has changed, but it has a little bit,” he said. “I don't want to say anger, but a fierce, competitive ... more of an attack-mode type of approach.”
In other words, a closer's approach, which was familiar to him. In 2011, Melancon went 8-4 with 20 saves and a 2.78 ERA with the Astros.
“His arm always played, his stuff always played,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. “Me being a reliever in the past, I can see having a bad year. Once you get out of sync, it's hard to get back in.”
Searage and special assistant Jim Benedict, a pitching Mr. Fix It, solved minor flaws in Melancon's mechanics during spring training. One change was keeping his head fixed straight ahead instead of veering to the side as he delivered the ball.
“It just puts your whole delivery in line,” Melancon said.
Melancon's money pitch is a cut fastball, which he said was inspired by watching Mariano Rivera when they were Yankees teammates in 2009. He also gets good results from what catcher Russell Martin calls a “swing-and-a-miss curveball.”
Martin describes Melancon as “studious, very cerebral about the game” but added that what Melancon does best isn't complicated.
“He's very aggressive throwing strike one,” Martin said. “For me, the game is simple. Go get strike one as quickly as possible. We talked a lot about pitching, what pitch to use. And I'm like: ‘You know what? I don't care what pitch you use. Just get strike one, quick.' I think he's taken that mindset and run with it. He's super aggressive. He attacks hitters all the time. I'd like to know what the percentage is of him getting strike one.”
It's nearly 68 percent, tops among Pirates pitchers who have thrown at least as many innings as Melancon. The league average is about 60 percent. Yet far from seeing pitches served on a platter, hitters are chasing when he gets ahead.
“You gain confidence as you gain results,” Martin said, “and I don't think his confidence could be higher right now.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pirates’ big risk with pitch-heavy draft focus might soon pay off
- Stats Corner: McCutchen’s contract extension brings huge cost savings
- Pirates notebook: Liriano looks to complete consecutive quality seasons
- Spring training breakdown: Pirates 10, Rays 5
- Pirates seek to tap Alvarez’s remaining upside
- No contract discussions yet for Pirates manager Hurdle, GM Huntington
- Pirates’ Nutting: No free agent off the table
- Stats corner: Can Pirates fix Volquez? Playoffs may depend on it
- Burnett makes Phillies debut versus Pirates
- Leyland content in new role with Tigers, rules out a return to Pirates