Pittsburgh Pirates: Mark Melancon Will Determine Success of Joel Hanrahan Trade

Andrew KaufmanSenior Analyst IDecember 26, 2012

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Mark Melancon #37 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the game on September 26, 2012 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Pirates finalized their trade of Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox Wednesday, shipping Hanrahan and utility infielder Brock Holt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel and Ivan De Jesus. 

Holt and De Jesus are essentially a wash, with Holt potentially providing a hair more short-term value as a contact-friendly utility infielder. So this trade essentially boils down to Hanrahan for the other three players.

Sands and Pimentel both provide the Pirates with potential medium- and long-term value, so the Pirates can win this trade going away if Melancon can come close to matching Hanrahan's production.

While traditional box score statistics, particularly from his most recent season in Boston, do not flatter Melancon, there are reasons to think he can pitch nearly as well as Hanrahan. For one, his FIP was nearly as good as Hanrahan's last season, and he posted an xFIP nearly a whole run lower than Hanrahan in 2012 despite finishing the season with an ERA that was three-and-a-half runs higher.

Melancon's value was likely at an all-time low heading into this offseason, only one year removed from the Red Sox trading a package of players centered around Jed Lowrie to Houston for him (as an aside, it's a shame the shortstop-starved Pirates neglected to trade Hanrahan a year earlier) following a breakout 2011 season.

But in 2012, an atrocious home run rate and the stigma of being "unable to close in Boston" resulted in Melancon's demotion by the Red Sox. Aside from the increased home run rate, which was mostly attributable to a doubling of his home runs per flyball percentage to an unsightly 22.2 percent (for the uninitiated, that simply means that nearly one in every four fly balls allowed by Melancon last year left the ball park), not much about the pitcher's production changed from 2011 to 2012.

In fact, Melancon actually recorded a higher strikeout rate and a lower walk rate in 2012 than he had the season prior. But the home runs, which also led to a substantially lower strand rate, did him in.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that Melancon can bounce back from his nightmare 2012 season: These reasons include a return to the NL Central, a move from Fenway (which could help explain the higher home run rate) to PNC Park and simple regression to the mean. 

This is not to say that Melancon immediately becomes the pitcher Joel Hanrahan is. Hanrahan has much better stuff, leading to higher strikeout rates and less home runs allowed (though the Hammer also saw a jump in his home run rate again in 2012). This also means that Hanrahan has a higher ceiling than Melancon, as evidenced by his two-win season in 2011.

But Hanrahan is also a pitcher with historical control problems who walked more than five batters per nine innings last season. He is a flawed reliever who is only under contract for one more season and is likely to make around seven million dollars in that one season, but because he is a "proven closer" he is perceived to have substantially more value than Melancon, who is under team control for three cheap seasons and is only 12 months removed from being a "proven closer" in his own right.

Given this contrast, it appears likely that Melancon can come close to matching Hanrahan's production even if he is not capable of the same lights-out season, and the stark differences in their contract situations means that Melancon is capable of actually exceeding Hanrahan's value. It is much easier for Melancon to be worth more than $500k in any of the next three seasons than for Hanrahan to be worth more than $7m this year.

If Melancon can bounce back and can match or exceed Hanrahan's performance, then the Pirates essentially will have gained free options on Sands and Pimentel. These options have a fair amount of value, and while this outcome is no sure thing, it's certainly a risk worth taking.