Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trouble in the Shark Tank: Another Year, Another Struggling Closer

Mark Melancon, whose experience swimming with sharks off the New Zealand coast prior to the 2013 season led to the "Shark Tank" nickname to the Pirates bullpen, graduated from eighth-inning setup man to closer last season. That occurred because the Pirates' 2014 closer, Jason Grilli, had problems out of the gate. He blew three saves in April, wound up on the disabled list, came back in May to save three games but blew another save and got a loss in June, resulting in a trade to the Los Angeles Angels. 

Grilli's a fastball-slider pitcher. Here's a chart of his pitch velocities, by pitch type by month, through the day he was traded last year:

Look at those red dots along the bottom. That's the average velocity of his slider by month. It was 82.6 mph in one game in March 2014, 82.8 mph in April, 83.0 mph in May, 83.1 mph in June. The year before, it was 84.4 in April, 83.8 in May, 83.3 in June. In 2012, it was 83.3, 83.3, and 83.8 in April-June. So he lost about a mile per hour. Batters hit .286 with a .571 slugging percentage when they made contact with his slider to start 2014. He got swings and misses on 15% of his sliders, and strikes on 59% of them.

By contrast, in the first three months of 2013, batters whiffed on 23% of his sliders, of which 72% were strikes. Batters went 7-for-46 (.152 batting average), all singles (so they slugged .152 as well), when they made contact against the pitch. In the first three months of 2012, he got whiffs on 20% of his sliders, strikes on 67%, and batters compiled an .088 batting average and .294 slugging percentage against the pitch. 

Long story short, Grilli lost effectiveness in 2014 because his slider, an extremely effective pitch in 2012 and 2013, became much more hittable, in part due to a decline in velocity. His fastball lost effectiveness too, without a significant drop in velocity, so I'm not suggesting the slider tells the whole story. But it's worth noting that a drop in velocity can presage problems for a pitcher.

Now, Melancon. I touched on his loss of velocity last week. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune looked into it in more detail. First, the velocity picture. 

Melancon has two primary pitches: a cut fastball (the red triangle) and a curve (yellow squares). His curve velocity so far this year is 79.8 mph. It's been an 81-82 mph pitch for him historically. Worse (because curveballs aren't fast pitches), his cutter is averaging below 90 mph this year. It's never been below 92 mph for him, in any month, at any point in his career. 

Less velocity has resulted in less success. Here are the numbers for Melancon's cutter from April 2013, April 2014, and April 2015:

  • April 2013: 76% strikes, 11% swing-and-miss, .180 batting average on contact, .282 slugging percentage on contact 
  • April 2014: 70% strikes, 14% swing-and-miss, .231 batting average on contact, .231 slugging percentage on contact
  • April 2015: 73% strikes, 6% swing-and-miss, .333 batting average on contact, .667 slugging percentage on contact

The curve hasn't been as effective, either:
  • April 2013: 67% strikes, 26% swing-and-miss
  • April 2014: 71% strikes, 29% swing-and-miss
  • April 2015: 56% strikes, 12% swing-and-miss
Look at the decline in whiffs. Batters were getting fooled by the cutter a fair amount and the curve a lot in 2013-14. He's getting fewer than half as many swinging strikes on them this year. He's not fooling batters.

Why is this? Well, in Sawchik's thorough analysis, he notes that Melancon's release point--the point in his delivery where he releases the baseball toward the plate--has moved. He's letting go of his pitches about two inches higher than last year. That's a lot. Here are the release points for his cutter from 2012 to 2015: 6.43 feet, 6.44 feet, 6.35 feet, 6.52 feet. As Sawchik points out, that's odd. So maybe his problem's something mechanical, and therefore fixable. Call me a pessimist, but I'm inclined to believe the dark side of this 2013 FanGraphs article by Bill Petti, that a loss of velocity in April is an (admittedly weak) indicator of injury, though, again, as Sawchik points out, an injury usually results in a lower release point. In any case, Melancon's doing something different, and that something's made him much less effective.

Last night's loss was tough. The Pirates gave up a run in the first, came back to take a 2-1 lead, immediately surrendered two more runs, and were behind 4-2 in the sixth when they scored three to take a 5-4 lead. The Cubs pulled even in the top of the seventh, but the Pirates scored three in their half of the inning with a dramatic two-out bases-loaded double by Jung Ho Kang. They were leading 8-6 when they handed the ball to Melancon. But while there may be something wrong with Melancon, it's worth noting that the 2015 Pirates are 6-8 after 14 games, just one game worse than the 2013 and 2014 wild card teams. And last night was Melancon's first blown save of the season. By April 21 last year, Grilli had already blown three. It's still only April.

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