Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
A simple adjustment has yielded big results.
It’s been a while since Mark Melancon was dominant. Before signing a four-year, $62 million contract with the Giants prior to the 2017 season, Melancon had been one of baseball’s best closers. In four years, he didn’t end a season with an ERA higher than 2.23. Injuries plagued his first two seasons with the Giants, and when he pitched, his performance ranged from “Pretty good” to “Uh oh.”
He finally got healthy in 2019, and gave the Giants 46 1/3 solid innings (44 strikeouts, 16 walks, 3 home runs) before he was traded to the Atlanta Braves. Aside from a four-run meltdown against the Marlins, Melancon has been excellent.
A 4.34 ERA in two months has masked what has otherwise been an exceptional first impression. In 18 2/3 innings, Melancon has struck out 24 batters while walking just two. He’s allowed just the one home run. All of that adds up to a 1.67 FIP.
When a pitcher switches teams, it’s always interesting to see what changes they make to their repertoire. If Melancon has made any adjustments since leaving San Francisco, they haven’t been obvious. The curveball has been more effective sure, and he’s thrown a few more of them. Since relievers throw so few pitches, a five-point jump in curveball percentage is just as likely to signal a whim as it is to show a paradigm shift.
There’s slight gloveside movement—it starts around the middle of the plate and ends near the outside edge—but Melancon’s knuckle curve has primarily excelled because of its 12-6 drop. Per Baseball Savant, Melancon’s curve drops 6.2 more inches than other curves thrown around the same velocity and with a similar release point. Here’s Melancon again throwing the same pitch with the same location to Mauricio Dubón over the weekend.
It definitely looks like it has way more sweeping action. This time, the pitch began on the inner edge of the plate and finally crossed along the outer black. The camera angles at Sun Trust and Coors Field are similar enough that we can rule out optical illusions, but this extra movement doesn’t show up at Baseball Savant or Brooks Baseball at least not this dramatically. There’s an inch or two variance month to month, but that’s not enough to account for moving over half the plate.
Melancon hasn’t added any movement to his curveball, but it has transformed into a sweeping breaking ball all the same. That’s because Melancon has changed which side of the pitching rubber he works from. Watching the pitches above, it’s hard to pick up on because Melancon likes to kick dirt on the pitching rubber, but at the beginning of the year, Melancon pitched from the first base side of the slab. He has since moved to the third base side. This difference is best seen when looking at his horizontal release points.
It appears that Melancon made the switch after a June 14 outing. Melancon was traded minutes before the July 31 deadline, so we can’t give the Braves credit for this adjustment. By attacking the plate from a different angle, he’s artificially adding horizontal movement. Before he made the switch, Melancon had a 14.1 percent swinging strike rate on his curve. After the switch, that’s up to 20.1 percent.
The gains haven’t just been seen in his curveball either. Melancon has seen across the board improvement including a 10 percentage point jump in overall strikeout rate since he moved to the other side of the rubber.
36 innings isn’t enough to say that Melancon is back to his old form for good, but it’s an encouraging turnaround as the Braves enter the playoffs.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.