This AZ Snake Pit 2022 Review powerfully captured fan disappointment.
One brave comment raised a small glimmer of hope for 2023:
“Mark Melancon really has me split between my two personalities. One personality says every word spent on this man is a word too much. The other personality thinks this 2023 Melancon is a typical bounce-back guy, the kind of signing Hazen has always realized.
The combination of both personalities is probably who I am and [the combination] considers Melancon’s first season as not having taken place and we now have signed him as a bounce back candidate for 8MM.
Or is that my third personality?” — DBacksEurope
A recent addition to the Diamondbacks’ bullpen, Miguel Castro will likely have the fastest pitches of any Diamondback. His contract, which has incentives for appearances and incentives for finishing games, indicated that he may, or may not, become a closer. Last season’s walk rate (11.5% of batters faced, 4.7 walks per 9 innings) and his blown saves (4 blown saves in 4 opportunities in last two seasons) make it less likely that he will become a closer.
Let’s take a second look at closer Mark Melancon. Data from Baseball Reference unless otherwise stated.
Mark Melancon was an excellent closer in 2021, with 39 saves in 45 opportunities, and an ERA+ of 175.
In December of 2021, Kevin Goldstein of FanGraphs shared his insights about Melancon. His insights led to two thoughts (which almost certainly differ from his insights because his deep experience and expertise are at a much higher level than mine) as follows:
- In 2021, Melancon’s pitches often missed their best location (which continued last season).
- His most frequent pitches (cutters and curveballs) have highly vertical movement, which is their important characteristic.
Although his 18 saves in 21 opportunities were ok, tie games were disasters (which is not news to most fans). When he entered tied games:
- He allowed an average of 2.15 batters to reach base, he allowed an average of 1.08 runs (earned and/or unearned), and the Diamondbacks lost often.
- When he allowed runs the Diamondbacks lost 8 of those 9 tied games.
- When he did NOT allow runs, the Diamondbacks lost 2 of those 4 tied games.
Although closers expect to enter close games, my view is that Melancon was unlucky in those tie games. The Diamondbacks scored less than 4 runs in 77% of those tie games, which compared unfavorably to the 44% season average for the Diamondbacks. As much as better pitching, Diamondbacks’ batters could have changed the narrative and they could have changed the season.
How did Melancon change in the 2022 season?
In April, Nick Piecoro reported that Mark Melancon made a change to his pitching mechanics. He changed his hip hinge, a motion near the beginning of his delivery.
“It’s still a little bit of a work in progress. I don’t want to go too quickly on adjustments, because I don’t usually think about mechanics too often. If you jump into something too quickly, it might backfire.” — Mark Melancon, April 2022
My view is that maybe changing the hip hinge had unexpected downsides.
“I think I’m an inch away, here and there. And I feel like nothing’s really gone my way. But there’s a reason for that, and I need to be that much better. Unfortunately, I have been in these situations before. It doesn’t feel like I’ve given a year’s worth of runs up in a week. I don’t know if I’ve done that, but I think I did in 2012. And that wasn’t a good time. But I also learned the most in my entire career after I did that, too. So I’m trying to pick up the positives right now.” — Mark Melancon, 14 May 2022
What are the problems with his curveballs?
My view is that the two unexpected downsides were location of his curveballs and movement of his curveballs.
Location. Jack Sommers’ description of the location failing to drop below the strike zone where swings and misses happen can be found in this article.
There may be a mitigation for the location problem. Baseball Reference splits showed that Mark Melancon had better results (3.77 ERA in 28.2 innings) when Carson Kelly was his catcher, possibly because the location problem was minimized by the way he held his catcher’s mitt or the way he sequenced the pitches.
Movement. The difference from average vertical movement impacts the effectiveness of curveballs. Baseball Savant’s data shows the difference changed from last season’s 5.1 inches more than average (which is shaded red as 10% more than average) to 4.3 inches more than average (which is shaded a lighter red as 8% more than average). My hypothesis is that less movement allowed batters to increase their average launch angle (which changed from last season’s negative 0.5 degrees to positive 10.9 degrees per Baseball Savant). Recovering that movement could lower the average launch angle providing Melancon with better results with his curveballs.
Although in 2021 Mark Melancon was an excellent closer, this season appears different. His results in tie games were a disaster, but below average scoring in those games contributed to the losses.
He made some changes to his mechanics, and then struggled. His curveballs had location and movement problems. Likely, those problems can be fixed.
Mark Melancon is a strong bounce-back candidate. I look forward to seeing him bounce back, whether he is a closer or he fills a different bullpen role.