The biggest reason I’m OK with the Joel Hanrahan trade is the inclusion of reliever Mark Melancon. The other three guys are pretty big question marks, although I think Jerry Sands has a good chance of at least being decent in a platoon-ish role. Still, Melancon is just as (if not more) valuable than Hanrahan in my eyes, largely because he’s under team control through 2016 and will cost much less (for the next few seasons, anyway). Pirate fans have heard that sort of line before, though, and it’s kind of a nice way of saying that the deal was a salary dump–which it was.
That said, there’s an excellent chance that Melancon alone will make this a good baseball move for the Pirates, regardless of salary or what any of the other players in the trade end up doing.
It’s no better than 60/40 that the #RedSox got the best reliever in their trade with the #Pirates. It’s probably a coin flip.
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) December 26, 2012
Melancon could end up being better than Hanrahan right away, especially if Hanrahan’s 2012 concerns (mainly a higher walk rate and a less effective fastball) are not a one-year aberration. Even if he isn’t better, though, he should be similar and probably won’t be much worse.
Melancon had some short major-league stints in 2009 and 2010, but most of his MLB innings came in the last two seasons. In 2011, he closed for the Astros and posted a 2.78 ERA and saved 20 games in 25 chances. More importantly, his xFIP* (3.14) is close to that figure, indicating that the fairly strong season was not a fluke. That’s because his peripheral numbers were solid: 21.4 K% and 8.4 BB%, and his HR/Flyball ratio (11.1%) was quite normal. His BABIP and LOB% (strand rate) were also close to average, which further supports the hypothesis that Melancon’s 2011 season reflects his true ability.
After the 2011 season, Melancon was traded to Boston for Jed Lowrie. That’s somewhat notable in itself, because the Red Sox clearly thought highly of Melancon to give up a pretty valuable piece in Lowrie. Anyway, Melancon’s 2012 did not go well. As you surely know by now, he posted an ugly 6.20 ERA and quickly lost his late-inning role in the Sox bullpen. That’s ugly on the surface, but it most certainly does not tell the whole story. Before even diving in to the advanced numbers, a few things stand out. Melancon was dreadful in four games in April, then was sent to the minor leagues. He came back in June and was much better after that (4.19 ERA), although he generally was not used in the later innings. So if you throw out a span of three innings, his season looks very different. The three awful innings still count, of course, but remember A.J. Burnett‘s dreadful night in St. Louis? That skewed his numbers for quite a while.
Anyway, even if you include those four bad outings in April, several signs point to Melancon as a favorable bounce-back candidate–much like Burnett was after 2011, and much like Hanrahan was when he was traded to the Pirates (he had an ERA north of 7 at that point). Melancon’s strikeout rate dropped by just 0.3% in 2012 (compared to ’11), and his walk rate actually improved by 2.2%. Those strong strikeout and walk numbers led to a solid 3.45 xFIP*, and the big difference between that and his ERA makes sense when you see his HR/FB rate was 22.2%. Melancon is a ground-ball pitcher and it’s reasonable to expect his rate to be higher than normal, but that’s still absurdly high (average is around 10%) and is double his 2011 mark. Melancon’s fastball was the only pitch that performed significantly worse in ’12 than in ’11, and that happened in spite of a gain in velocity (up to 93.1 from 92.5 MPH). Melancon also stranded runners at a strikingly bad rate in ’12 (59.4%, far lower than the league average 72.5%), although his BABIP did not change. There could be things Melancon changed in his delivery/approach or other factors that contributed to a poor 2012, but there seems to be a pretty significant amount of evidence indicating that it was pretty fluky.
Additionally, consider that Melancon’s home yard in 2012 was Fenway Park–the third best yard for hitters in baseball last year. PNC Park was 27th. The AL East (and AL in general) is more formidable offensively than the NL Central, which happens to be where Melancon posted his good numbers in ’11. He also pitched 29.1 more innings in ’11 than in ’12, so the better (and seemingly more representative) sample is the larger one.
It’s extremely difficult to project what a relief pitcher will do in the future. Crazy things happen more often than with other positions, likely because the samples are much smaller. There’s no guarantee Melancon will bounce back, and as I said there certainly could be other logical reasons why he got worse in 2012. Still, a pretty strong amount of evidence suggests he will be better for the Bucs, and it seems like Neal Huntington used that line of thinking in acquiring him. Don’t be surprised if Melancon is just as good (or better) than Hanrahan right away, and even if he isn’t, he has a very good shot at providing five years of good value–which would make this deal a good one for the Bucs regardless of what Sands, De Jesus, and Pimentel end up doing.
*xFIP uses the same scale as ERA, and has shown to be a very good metric for predicting future performance. Read more about it here.
Advanced stats are from Fangraphs.com
PHOTO: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports