By the Numbers: the Mark Melancon of old has returned

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the star power the San Diego Padres have under their wings (or robes). From Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and a slew of others, this would come to the surprise of practically no one. 

As their most recent offseason illustrated, the Friars were not timid to pack in a few more stars to their already crowded roster. Whether it be Yu Darvish or Blake Snell, you get the idea. The Padres themselves certainly have grasped the concept of mastering the star power puzzle – heading into June 5 action, the Padres (36-23) are perched atop the Wild Card standings and only sit one game behind the National League West-leading San Francisco Giants. 

While the stars certainly produce at the level that make them worthy of the star label in the first place, the supplementary core has also pitched in when needed to make the Padres a more well-rounded and formidable club. 

Among all San Diego supplementary players has emerged a pitcher who has made a name for himself once more, even after he fell off the map over the past several seasons. Not any longer, though. 

Why, I am talking about Mark Melancon, of course. 

The 13-year MLB veteran certainly had rather large shoes to fill when he was signed from the bargain bin to a one-year deal worth $3 million on Feb. 18. After all, the right-hander was expected to fill the closing void left by Kirby Yates, who compiled a 2.55 ERA and 56 total saves in 183.2 innings while with the Padres for four years (2017-20). 

Even when taking this pressure out of the equation, there was still the need for Melancon to simply put together a solid stretch. After dominating lineups from 2013-16 (where he amassed a 1.80 ERA and 147 saves in 290.0 innings pitched while with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals), Melancon fell flat not soon after the fact. A four-year, $62 million deal with the Giants did not work out to the benefit of both parties, and a smaller stint with the Atlanta Braves was not enough to move the needle unanimously in his favor. 

To say Melancon needed a rebound season from start to finish would be an understatement, and while no one can fully postulate whether he will remain gaudy by the time the regular season ends, one thing has been proven already – he has started off his inaugural season in San Diego very strongly. 

So, how has Melancon kicked off his 2021 season? 

Heading into June 5 action, Melancon has pitched to a 0.68 ERA in 26.1 innings pitched (25 games played). His 19 saves are the most in a single season for the Arizona Wildcat alum since 2016 (47), and again, it is only June

Melancon’s save total this season, while certainly respectable (his 19 saves currently rank first among all MLB relievers), does not tell the entire story. Among 136 relievers to pitch a minimum of 20 innings heading into June 5 action, Melancon’s 0.68 ERA ranks fourth and is behind only Aroldis Chapman (0.41 ERA), Dan Winkler (0.44 ERA) and Alex Reyes (0.62 ERA). Now, Melancon certainly has not struck out batters at an elite rate (Melancon’s 7.52 K/9 ranks 117th), but his groundball percentage (GB%) has certainly made up for it. Melancon’s 63.9 GB% is not only fifth among all 136 relievers but is also a career high (his previous career-high was 2019 when he combined to pick up a 62.1 GB%). Melancon’s reliance on pitching to contact to produce outs has not boded well for his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) or expected Earned Run Average (xERA). After all, his 3.10 FIP and 2.84 xERA was tied for 38th and 41st, respectively. However, his ability to keep the ball on the ground via his sharp cutter has limited Melancon’s home run output – Melancon has only allowed one home run this season, and as a result, his 0.36 home runs per nine innings pitched (HR/9) is tied for 15th-best. 

At this point, the writing is on the wall. Although Melancon has not been able to generate a ton of swings and misses, he has been able to generate extremely weak contact. So weak, in fact, that his Exit Velocity (EV), which calculates the average velocity a batter hits the pitcher’s pitch at, is also respectable. Melancon’s 84.8 EV is not only tied for ninth among all 136 relievers with a minimum of 20.0 innings pitched, but additionally is tied for 11th among all 303 pitchers with a minimum of 20.0 innings pitched. 

Not bad, I’d say. 

If the statistics seem overwhelmingly in favor of Melancon, it is because they are. However, if anything else, remember this – only three relievers aged 35 or older have ever garnered 15 or more saves in a San Diego uniform since the franchise’s inception in 1969: Trevor Hoffman (five times), Fernando Rodney (2016) and Melancon (2021). 

Just a reminder once more: it is only June.

Is Melancon on the same level of stardom as Tatis Jr.? Probably not. Did anyone expect Melancon to take San Diego’s closer role by storm? The answer is also a resounding no. 

However, Melancon has, and as a result, the franchise is only overwhelmed by yet another player who has performed at a star-caliber level. 

Talk about a good problem to have. 

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