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Let’s talk about Mark Melancon’s 10 scoreless innings to start the season

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Is he finally healthy? Is a dominant stretch like this sustainable?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest surprise so far has been Mark Melancon’s performance. He has yet to allow a run in his first 10 innings of work. He’s not pitching in high leverage roles quite yet, but after not having been close at all last year to matching a similar scoreless streak and being largely unable to stop teams from hitting him hard, this performance has been unlike anything we’ve ever seen from him in a Giants uniform, and it’s worth talking about.

Mark Melancon’s career was at a crossroads as recently as last season. The health of his pitching arm has seemingly been a topic of debate for as long as he’s been with the Giants. Remember the time the doctors cut open his forearm and found necrotic muscle? This is before we even broach the subject of his substantial, franchise-altering contract, which we’re not going to because it doesn’t seem to matter. With all of this swirling around, though, it was incredibly easy to forget that he has been an incredibly dominant reliever for most of his career.

Before he signed with the Giants, he was a career 2.60 ERA setup man/closer with an ERA+ of 151 in 447 major league innings. That included the Yankees, Astros (in the last years before Luhnow’s teardown), the Red Sox (the Bobby Valentine year), and the Pirates from 2013-2016, when they were both really good and fading. On all of his teams since 2012 (as far back as I cared to research), he’s had dominant stretches of scoreless relief and in some cases, head-explodingly dominant ones.

Here’s how he’s done in 2019:

Streak: 3/29 -4/18
10.0 IP
7 K
3 BB
7 Hits (0 extra base hits)
37 Batters Faced
.440 Win Probability Added

Yeah, that Win Probability added isn’t going to be too great when you’re coming into the game when the team is down, but he hasn’t made the situation worse.

I limited my search through his career stretching back to 2012 to streaks with zero runs allowed — he’s had long streaks of zero earned runs allowed as well — and came up with this list:

Melancon scoreless innings streaks since 2012 (min. 10 IP)

YEAR DATES IP K BB H XBH WPA
YEAR DATES IP K BB H XBH WPA
2016 5/23 - 7/10 18.0 17 3 10 1 1.409
2015 5/15 - 6/3 10.1 4 1 7 0 0.949
2015 6/7 - 8/2 22.1 20 6 13 1 2.536
2013 4/17 - 5/15 13.0 14 1 11 2 1.065
2013 6/7 - 7/20 15.0 15 0 7 1 1.295
2012-2013 9/21 - 4/13 12.0 14 0 4 0 1.174
2012 6/24 - 7/18 11.1 10 0 5 0 0.153

That 2012-2013 one spans the end of his tenure with the Red Sox and into his start with the Pirates. Other things to note: he’s never started a season with ten scoreless innings. He’s had several runs of 8-9 innings pitched without allowing a run and very few baserunners, too. For instance, after blowing the save and taking the L on opening day in 2017, he went on one of those 8-inning scoreless streak, and later in the year, on either side of his DL stint, he had a 9-inning scoreless streak.

So, Melancon has been very good not too long ago, and while pitcher health is never sustainable and certainly no guarantee of future health, this is the first time the team is actually getting “vintage Mark Melancon”, the exact kind of performance they hoped they’d get when they signed him to one of the largest reliever contracts in baseball history.

Public Statcast data began in 2015, so that’s as far back as we can look at Melancon. Still, by comparing things like pitch spin rates, velocity, and quality of contact against him, we can see that Melancon appears to be pitching as well as he ever has. And, actually, having that 2015 data is probably all we need, given that he had his most dominant stretches that year.

In 2015, Statcast recorded him as having a four-pitch arsenal: cutter, curve, four-seamer, split finger. Let’s compare values between that year and his 10 innings in 2019:

Melancon S’Cast comp: 2015 vs. 2019

YEAR FB MPH/SPIN CURVE MPH/SPIN CUTTER MPH/SPIN SPLIT MPH/SPIN EXIT VELO K% BB%
YEAR FB MPH/SPIN CURVE MPH/SPIN CUTTER MPH/SPIN SPLIT MPH/SPIN EXIT VELO K% BB%
2015 91.9 / 2,299 81.4 / 2,615 91.2 / 2,235 85.3 / 1,252 85.0 mph 21.2 4.8
2019 92.0 / 2,381 82.7 / 2,689 91.7 / 2,347 83.5 / 1,815 89.0 mph 18.9 8.1

Caveats: [1] Melancon barely throws his splitter (33 times since 2015) and [2] Melancon has pitched just 10 innings this season. Let’s see how all of this data holds up over the long haul.

Yeah, the declining strikeout rate, doubled walk rate, and significantly greater average exit velocity are also warning signs, but if we’re wondering if we’re seeing a fully healthy Mark Melancon, the answer is yes. He’s 34, so he’s on the other side of the performance curve, but we’re seeing the very best he has to offer, and for the Giants, that’s probably two years too late, but welcome all the same.

And, uh, sorry about being the reason why your scoreless inning streak probably ends in your next appearance, Mark Melancon. It’s a quirk of reality.