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Mark Melancon Rises

The Pittsburgh Pirates have gone all in on Mark Melancon‘s rebound. After a disastrous season with the Boston Red Sox, Melancon has returned to form. With Jason Grilli currently on the disabled list with a forearm injury, Melancon will be relied upon as the team’s closer. Due to Melancon’s failures last season, he developed a reputation as a pitcher who can’t handle pressure-packed situations. He should have no trouble dispelling that notion this season.

It’s easy to look at Melancon’s stats from 2012 and predict improvement. His high home run rate was boosted by an absurd 22.2% HR/FB rate, and he had a 59.4% left on base percentage. Given that his strikeout and walk rates were normal, there was no reason to expect him to be nearly as bad in 2013. His solid 3.45 xFIP tells most of the story.

At the same time, it’s not that easy. Even though Melancon was a candidate to improve based on some bad luck, he’s made some changes to his approach that have aided in his resurgence. Melancon has completely scrapped his sinker and change, according to BrooksBaseball.net. Both pitches had been used primarily against lefties in the past, but were thrown fairly infrequently overall. Losing the change was a smart idea. The pitch had a negative PITCH f/x pitch value in both 2012 and 2011. It’s a little harder to figure out whether losing the sinker was a good thing, as the PITCH f/x numbers suggest he wasn’t using a sinker last season. Brooks Baseball disagrees. For what it’s worth, PITCH f/x did not think the pitch was effective in 2009 and 2010. The difference against lefties is already evident, though it’s a small sample. In 19.1 innings in 2012, lefties hit .291/.356/.519 against Melancon. That slash line has dropped to just .161/.181/.210 in 23 innings in 2013.

It can be argued that his usually strong curveball was a bigger issue against left-handers. While lefties hit just .191 against the pitch, they slugged .619. The trend wasn’t exclusive to lefties. Melancon had a hard time finding his curve last season. The curve has always served as Melancon’s best offering, with an 18.40% whiff rate. That dropped to career-low 12.15% in 2012. Command was partially an issue, as Melancon’s 41.44% ball percentage was his worst since his rookie year. There’s also some evidence to suggest that his release point was slightly off. In 2012, his horizontal release point with his curve was more spread out than it had been in previous seasons.

He’s seen a rebound with the pitch in all those areas. Melancon’s whiff rate with his curve is up to a career-high 28.85%. He’s also been able to pound the zone with the pitch, with a 28.85 ball percentage. On top of that, his release point appears to be more consistent.

After a disaster season in Boston, there was some doubt about Melancon’s ability to handle a high-leverage role. While he’s already shown he’s more than capable, moving to the ninth inning role shouldn’t impact his comeback. Melancon’s awful 2012 was a mixture of poor luck, and an inability to find his curve. Now that both of those things are ironed out, he looks like an absolute steal for the Pirates.