After weeks of speculation, the Nationals finally made a deal for a closer, a deal that fans had been demanding for quite a while. Except the deal wasn’t for either of the Yankees’ hard throwing lefties, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. It wasn’t for Royals closer extraordinaire Wade Davis either. Instead, it was for Mark Melancon in a deal that at worst looks like a fair trade but at best could be considered a borderline steal. Melancon’s name wasn’t making the rounds on the rumor mill for long before the deal got announced. So who exactly is the Nationals’ new closer?
Melancon comes to the Nationals from the Pirates, where he had quietly solidified himself as one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball. Since being signed by the Pirates in 2013, his 1.80 ERA is the lowest among pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched. Take your pick of value stats and Melancon is at the top of the leaderboard of relief pitchers or very close to it.
Melancon is a three-pitch pitcher. His go to pitch is his cutter, which he throws upwards of 63 percent of the time. He will toss the standard four seam fastball around 10 percent of the time, a curve around 25 percent, and he’ll mix in a change up every now and again. The cutter is effective; batters hit only .233 against the pitch since 2013. The curve is also a tough pitch to square up, as hitters have batted only .150 in at bats ending with the curve.
Unlike most dominant relievers, Melancon’s success hasn’t come as the result of overpowering velocity. His cutter sits around 92 MPH, so he relies on movement rather than velocity for his stellar results. Melancon still racks up his fair share of strikeouts, around a 23 percent strikeout rate for his career. But he’s not an overpowering strikeout reliever, which could make Nationals fans nervous. So far in 2016, Melancon has been striking out opposing hitters at his usual 23 percent strikeout rate, which is only a tick higher than former Nats closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has a 21 percent strikeout rate this season. It’s not a small sample size result, either. Melancon has a swinging strike rate of 10.4 percent this season and a career mark of about 11 percent. Papelbon this year? A 10.8 percent swinging strike rate. For those fans who worry about Papelbon’s pitch-to-contact approach, it will unfortunately be more of the same when Melancon takes the mound.
Of course, Melancon has been better over the last couple of seasons than Papelbon. Part of that success can be attributed to Melancon’s stinginess in passing out free bases via walks. This year, he has walked batters 5.5 percent of the time, the highest rate since his 2013 season with the Pirates. Compare that to Johnny Jonathan who has given out free passes just about 10 percent of the time. On top of that, Melancon has been much better over his career at limiting hard contact than Papelbon has been of late. Melancon currently holds a 48 percent groundball rate, but has never completed a full season with a groundball rate under 57 percent during his time with the Pirates. Papelbon has never had a groundball rate over 50 percent in his career and has a lowly 35 percent groundball rate on the 2016 season. While Papelbon has forced “soft” contact only 11 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs, Melancon gets soft contact 27 percent of the time. Papelbon is a former fireballing closer forced to pitch to contact due to diminished velocity. Melancon has been a pitch to contact specialist his whole career and has the results to show for it.
Add it all up and Melancon is an obvious upgrade over Papelbon and will make Nationals fans feel better about one run leads late in important games. While Miller and Chapman possess the big time velocity and eye catching strikeout totals, Melancon has quietly been just as effective as his more well-known peers. He will likely only wear the curly W for the remainder of this season as his current contract is up once the World Series ends. But if the World Series ends with Melancon closing out the game, the Nationals will be fine with the rental.Tags: Mark Melancon, Nationals, Nats, Washington Nationals