When the Boston Red Sox traded Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland for Mark Melancon, they were giving up a good two young cost controlled players for a relief pitcher, a questionable move given the relative value of relievers. Jed Lowrie, a utility infielder possibly capable of sticking at shortstop had shown flashes of brilliance at the plate while with the Sox, and while Kyle Weiland’s weak 2011 rookie season was a contributing factor in the team’s September collapse, he is still a young starting pitcher with nearly all of his service time ahead of him. On the surface, it seemed likeBoston was giving up way too much for Melancon. The Red Sox reasoning ran deeper than just this deal, however.
Melancon, who had been closing games for the Houston Astros, was the first part of a puzzle that just this week came together, when Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard were announced as the final two Red Sox starters. In order to move Bard into the starting rotation, Boston needed to replace him and Melancon was a perfect solution. His 3.47 FIP is just a bit above Bard’s 3.22 career mark and while his strike out has yet to reach Bard’s levels, he has even better ground ball skills, with a 55.5 GB% thus far in his Major League career. He is just entering his prime at age 26 and 2012 will be just his second full season in the show, so it is very possible that he will be an even more effective pitcher in the next few seasons.
While Lowrie and Weiland could easily surpass Melancon in overall value, the two did not fit any role for the Boston club, with Mike Aviles and Jose Iglesias serving as the now and future shortstops and Weiland more likely to end up in middle relief than the rotation. The trade was really the dealing of spare parts for a single key piece.
Entering the season, Melancon may be asked to do more than just replace Daniel Bard in the setup role. With Andrew Bailey suffering from a thumb injury, Melancon is the logical choice to start the season as Boston’s closer. Whether he is setting up or closing, Melancon will be one the most important relievers in the bullpen this season.
Melancon throws a heavy four-seam fastball that is very close to a sinker, a cut fastball, which he add last season. The four-seamer averages 92-93 mph and is the main force in establishing his excellent ground ball rate. He throws this pitch 50% of the time and focusing on keeping it low in the zone. Against lefties, he also tends to throw it away. His cutter is fairly standard, breaking toward the catcher’s right hand side, or away from righties. He throws it more to righties than lefties but almost always throws it to the catcher’s right hand side, taking advantage of its down and away movement against righties and inside break against lefties.
Melancon’s primary off-speed pitch is an excellent curve ball. He uses the pitch heavily, throwing it 25% of the time or more. Like Josh Beckett, he uses it as an out pitch, dropping in below the zone for swinging strikes. It is effective in that regard, with a 17.8% whiff rate. The movement is almost entirely vertical, as the picth does not break much horizontally, effectively mimicking the horizontal movement of a fastball before dropping sharply. It averages around 83 mph.
Against lefties, Melancon will occasionally throw a change up as well. The pitch is around 84 mph and features the same movement as his four seam fastball. He keeps it low and away from hitters. Throwing it just 3-5% of the time, Melancon does not put much faith in it, using it just enough to make it a different look for lefties.
Mark Melancon has a great mix of skills for a reliever. He has reasonable walk rates, good strike out rates and he keeps the ball on the ground. He has some big shoes to fill as Daniel Bard was one of the best setup men in the game these past three seasons, but his stuff can certainly bring him to that level. Given what Boston gave up to bring him here, the Red Sox front office clearly thinks very highly of him. If he can reward their faith in 2012, the Red Sox bullpen can once again be a major strength for this team.