Last offseason, Mike Axisa did about as thorough of a prospect profile on Mark Melancon as one could hope for. There isn't really anything to add to Axisa's 1,500 words on Melancon except what has happened since that was written. So go read that, come back (or just stay here), and I'll talk about Melancon's 2009 season.
Melancon started the season in Triple-A and was not on the 40-man roster, but it was understood that he was a guy the Yankees were going to go to if they needed bullpen help during the season.
Considering that every team needs bullpen help every season, it was a foregone conclusion that we would see Melancon pitch in the big leagues sooner rather than later.
At the start of the season in AAA, Melancon continued to show why he had garnered so much praise from the Yankees organization. He pitched 11 scoreless innings over his first six appearances. During that span, he struck out a ridiculous 17 batters while walking only three.
After just 31.1 innings for Scranton, it seemed like Melancon had already conquered Triple-A. At this point, the Yankees were struggling to find consistency out of their bullpen with Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras pitching poorly. When Brian Bruney went down with an injury, the Yankees had little choice but to call up the touted Melancon. On April 25th, he was called up. I was very optimistic at the time, stating "He's the type of guy who can stick in the majors for good right now."
Well, things did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. The next night, Melancon debuted versus Boston. He managed to get through two innings unscathed, but wasn't what I had expected to see. His command was all over the place and he threw some fastballs that weren't even close to the strike zone.
The next few outings were more of the same for Melancon. He continued to struggle with his control, and it all fell apart on May 5th in his second appearance against Boston. Melancon walked all three batters that he faced, throwing only 8 strikes to go along with 14 balls. The Boston hitters were able to lay off of every single pitch he threw outside of the zone.
After a shaky and disappointing start to his career, Melancon was sent back down to Triple-A to regain his confidence that had seemingly disappeared. I expected Melancon to make an instant positive impact on the bullpen, but that's not always how it goes.
Returning to Scranton, Melancon continued to pitch extremely well. He threw 29.3 more innings there, racking up 25 strikeouts and only five walks. His ERA during that span was 3.38 and his FIP was an even better 3.00.
After leaving him in the minors for two months, the Yankees decided it was time to give Melancon another shot. This time around, Melancon pitched extremely well. In his next eight innings (five appearances), he did everything you want out of a young relief pitcher.
He threw strikes (66 percent). He got batters to hit the ball into the ground (61 percent). He only struck out five batters, but he walked just one to go along with that. His ERA and FIP were both around 2.25 in this span. This was the Melancon I had expected to see, but it's worth noting this came in very low leverage spots.
Melancon didn't get too much more of a chance, even after this successful stretch. He was sent down until September because there was no room for him in the bullpen. He had a few poor outings in Triple-A this time, but he was still striking out hitters, keeping the ball on the ground, and keeping the walks down.
When rosters expanded, Melancon was called back up had some more middling results, giving up three runs in five innings while walking four and striking out three. The Yankees didn't show much confidence in him and that was all the work he got in September. All in all, Melancon racked up 69.1 innings, with just 16.1 of them coming in the majors. There's no doubt that this was a disappointing year for him.
Here's what Mike Axisa had to say about Melancon's repertoire:
"Melancon regained his pre-TJ stuff by the end of 2008, sitting 92-94 and touching 96 with good life on his fastball. His out pitch is a hard 12-to-6 curveball that he can drop in for strike one or use to get chases for strike three. He toyed with a splitter in college, however the Yanks had him scrap in favor of a true changeup that is now a usable third pitch."
That matches up fairly well with the Pitch F/X data we now have on Melancon. He worked primarily off of his fastball which averaged 93.1 and topped out right around 96. The sample sizes with his secondary pitches are small, but his curveball appeared to be as good as advertised.
His curveball had average vertical movement, but above average velocity. He averaged 82.3 with the pitch.
He was able to drop the pitch into the strike zone or have it drop out. The key here is that his curveball had an 18.2 percent whiff rate, suggesting it was a very dominant pitch. Take a look at how it matches up to the rest of his repertoire:
Melancon's fastball actually doesn't sink as much as I expected it would, considering the impressive ground ball rates he puts up. In fact, it has less downward vertical movement than the average fastball. His curveball has much different movement than his other two pitches, which is probably what makes it so effective.
Usually you see a bit more of a discrepancy here between fastball and changeup, and I wonder if that's why Melancon's change is merely "usable."
Mark Melancon's 2009 season was disappointing, but I don't think it really changes his long-term outlook very much at all. Throughout Melancon's pitching career, versus lefties, versus righties, he has always dominated. His 16.1 mediocre innings for the Yankees in '09 just aren't enough to challenge his track record. In fact, his tRA last season was 4.65, which was just slightly below the league average.
In 2010, I think we'll see much more of the Melancon we saw who had that dominant eight inning stretch in the middle of the season. CHONE disagrees with me a bit and is projecting a 4.50 ERA for Melancon. On the other hand, the FANS are optimistic, projecting a 3.78 ERA.
Right now, Melancon is a big-league ready reliever who should mature into a legit setup man. I don't see any reason to believe he can't live up to that potential this season and I would not be surprised in the slightest if he topped that 3.78 ERA.
I thought 2009 was going to be the year that Melancon broke into the bigs and stuck there, but it didn't work out that way. I'll try again, and this time, say with confidence that Melancon will make a name for himself over the course of the 2010 season as one of the Yankees' top relievers.
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