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Get to know Braves’ reliever Mark Melancon

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Melancon perhaps has more name recognition than the Braves’ other relief acquisitions, but what is he at this point in his career?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Of the three Braves’ Trade Deadline acquisitions, Mark Melancon (pronounced something like meh-lan-sen, and not mel-ann-cone, for those of you, like me, that mostly read rather than listen) is likely the one with the most name recognition given his past MLB work. Chris Martin recently returned from baseball in Asia; Shane Greene had a good half-season in New York but was a starter-to-reliever conversion in Detroit. Melancon, however, has nearly 10 career fWAR, a World Series ring, was the return in a much-maligned trade, and signed a buzzy, great-for-him-but-not-for-his-team free agent deal not long ago.

Before the bigs

Melancon hails from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, a Denver suburb. He was a three-sport star in high school (baseball, pigskin, basketball) and chose not to sign with the Dodgers as a 30th-round pick, instead making his way down to sunny Tucson, where he donned the Arizona Wildcats uniform for a few years, as well as playing on Team USA. The Yankees drafted him in the ninth round — as a pure relief prospect that had already had elbow troubles, he was unlikely to get a loftier position despite his skill at getting opposing batters out. Even so, Baseball America rated him the Yankees’ ninth-best prospect before the 2007 campaign.

Unfortunately, though, he missed all of 2007 (the season after he was drafted) with Tommy John Surgery, but flew through the minors (High-A, Double-A, Triple-A) the next season, earning a reappearance on Baseball America’s Yankees prospect rankings, again in the ninth spot. Despite not making New York’s Opening Day roster for 2009, it only took a few weeks for him to make his major league debut.

(For those keeping score at home, all three Trade Deadline acquisitions this year were involved with the Yankees at some point; Greene and Melancon via draft; Martin via trade.)

In the bigs

Melancon’s career has been lengthy and multifarious to date. His debut season was unremarkable (replacement level performance as part of the Triple-A-to-Yankee-Stadium taxi squad) and he didn’t make the playoff roster, but collected a World Series ring anyway as the Yankees topped the Phillies in November. He got even less of a chance in the New York bullpen the next season, and was shipped to Houston with Jimmy Paredes in exchange for Lance Berkman at the Trade Deadline.

2011 was his first full season as a major leaguer and he fared well, putting up 0.8 fWAR with good run prevention and good peripherals while closing for a dreadful Houston squad. The Astros then traded him to the Red Sox, where he had a few early-season meltdowns and was optioned to the minors once again. Even though he was once again solid upon returning, his first few outings were so bad that he actually finished the season with -0.2 fWAR despite a 75 FIP- and 75 xFIP- after he came back to Boston in June. (This is pretty crazy if you think about it.)

He was then traded once again, as part of a six-player deal involving the Pirates, in which the Red Sox got Brock Holt and Joel Hanrahan. It was really in Pittsburgh that he blossomed into a stretch of dominance, throwing up 2.5 fWAR in 2013, 1.9 fWAR in 2014, and 1.4 fWAR in 2015. Melancon had come up as a two-fastball guy that mixed in a curve and an occasional splitter with the Yankees, but picked up a cutter with the Astros that ate into his sinker usage. With the Pirates, he essentially became a cutter-curve guy only, rarely showing another pitch, and the increased cutter usage took him from a good reliever to a dominant one even as his velocity declined.

In 2016, with his effectiveness continuing to slowly abate and his team control expiring, the Pirates made a brilliant trade at the expense of the Nationals, sending two months of Melancon to the nation’s capital in exchange for Felipe Vazquez (then known as Felipe Rivero). Vazquez/Rivero, in his own right, was already a high-octane relief force, having put up 1.7 fWAR in under 100 innings prior to being shipped to Pittsburgh. The Nationals got 30 dominant Melancon innings (1.0 fWAR), plus four more scoreless frames in an NLDS loss to the Dodgers. The Pirates, meanwhile, have gotten 6.1 fWAR from Vazquez so far. Yikes, Mike Rizzo. (Yike Rizzo?)

Melancon then hit the free agent market for the first time and made good. He made very good. The Giants, in one of the last hurrahs for a corpulently bountiful free agent market, signed Melancon to a $62 million, four-year deal that afforded him a full no-trade clause and an opt-out after two years. Even without those benefits, it was the richest deal, by annual average value (AAV), ever signed by a relief pitcher. You probably know how the rest of this story goes: the Giants were either oblivious to or thought they could forestall Melancon’s declining effectiveness, but either way, the decline continued.

The normally-durable Melancon got hurt twice in 2017 and wasn’t as dominant as before when healthy, either, with an FIP- and xFIP- creeping up towards the 80s in his first year as a Giant. 2018 saw more of the same, including an elbow injury and some of the least-dominant pitching of his career: 88 FIP- (highest since that ill-fated Red Sox season tanked by a few bad early outings) and 96 xFIP- (highest since his debut year). All-in-all, Melancon earned $34 million during his first two years in San Francisco (including some deferred signing bonus money included in this total) for 69 innings of 0.7 fWAR, 0.1 RA9-WAR, -0.62 WPA baseball. (This is why you don’t sign relievers to big contracts.)

Mark Melancon, the 2019 pitcher

All of this brings us to 2019, where the Braves made a value-negative move to shore up their bullpen and absorb Melancon’s remaining $18 million-ish in obligations in exchange for the good-as-recently-as-2018-but-not-anymore-hey-that’s-relievers-for-you Dan Winkler and Tristan Beck. While I’m sure it didn’t quite transpire this way, I have a very vibrant mental image of Alex Anthopoulos on the phone with Giants’ General Manager Farhan Zaidi (as well as Al Avila in Detroit) with both men watching the Braves’ bullpen self-immolate against the Nationals, and the incremental price for both Shane Greene and Melancon ticking up, up, up with each additional run bled to the Nationals’ bats.

So, who is Melancon at this point in time? Well, 2019 has been a small bounceback for him. His 80 FIP- is better than his 88 mark from last season, and his 79 xFIP- is a bigger and more pleasant departure from last year’s 96. His velocity has arrested its earlier decline and has allowed him to pump in cutters around 92 mph, something that’s held steady since 2015. He’s still a cutter-curve guy, though he’ll throw a four-seamer here and there and mix in more splits than previously.

Source: Baseball Savant | Spiky circles reflect league average
Source: Brooks Baseball

In terms of outcome, Melancon is another grounder-focused arm for the Braves to use in the immediate future. Similar to Shane Greene, hitters don’t really elevate the ball much against Melancon so much as they pound it, at relatively strong exit velocities, into the ground. This holds true for both his curve and cutter (unlike Greene, whose non-sinker pitches hitters find easy to elevate), though the curve is more of a whiff-generator where weak, low launch angle contact is more of a secondary effect.

Unlike Greene and Chris Martin, Melancon doesn’t really pound the zone much, nor is he particularly adept at either missing bats or preventing walks at this point in his career. He has some fringy advantages in getting batters to swing and miss at pitches off the plate, but for the most part, his plate discipline peripherals are very “generic pitcher” rather than anything else. If there’s one thing he does well, it’s to keep the ball away from the heart of the plate where it can really be elevated and crushed — this helps him survive by making sure that even solid contact off of him isn’t hit in the air.

Lastly, like Martin and Greene before him, Alex Anthopoulos has acquired a player in Melancon that isn’t really subject to notable (if any) platoon splits. That should make in-game management easier across the board for the Braves — while playing matchups can still be critical because batters’ platoon splits matter too, not just pitcher splits, leaving any of the Braves’ new relievers in against a left-handed batter is not the same death knell it would be in a high-leverage situation as for a different, more platoon split-y relief arm.

The outlook

The projections have Melancon putting up a marginal 0.1 to 0.2 fWAR over the 16 or so innings remaining that he’ll likely get in 2019. There’s no real reason to expect an incipient collapse, so he’ll probably be counted on for another 0.4ish fWAR next year, a solid but not particularly gratifying middle relief mark. I’ll note again that these WAR decimals aren’t really why the Braves acquired Melancon or his contract, but it’s still important to characterize that Melancon, like Greene or Martin, doesn’t represent a new, dominant bullpen era for the Braves, but rather, just an upgrade over the league-worst relief corps that the team was using up through the Trade Deadline.