First Pitch: Mark Melancon and Remembering When Joel Hanrahan Was a Throw In

There seems to be some debate over whether relief pitcher Mark Melancon is involved in the pending Joel Hanrahan trade. A few outlets are reporting that Melancon is in the deal, although other outlets are saying that Melancon himself hasn’t been told anything. The Hanrahan trade will be delayed until after Christmas, so like most of this deal we’re analyzing aspects of the trade without even knowing all of the details. In this case, we don’t even know whether Melancon is involved. That hasn’t stopped Pirates fans from debating whether he would be a good addition.

I thought Charlie at Bucs Dugout had a great write-up on why Melancon would be a great addition for the Pirates. I’ll let his article do the talking, but there was one part that stood out to me.

Hanrahan himself actually presents a great case study. When the Pirates traded for him in 2009, he had a 7.71 ERA. Oh noes! What was Neal Huntington doing? He doesn’t know anything!

I thought the last part was funny, mostly because I’ve seen those same reactions for Melancon. I find it ironic to suggest that we can’t trust Huntington in this situation with acquiring Melancon in a Hanrahan deal, when Huntington was the guy who added Hanrahan in the first place. Maybe you can question whether Jerry Sands or Stolmy Pimentel will work out. But if there’s one area where Huntington gets a free pass, it’s the bullpen. Sometimes the moves don’t work (Chad Qualls, Hisanori Takahashi as recent examples), but he has a lot of success stories of either adding relievers on the cheap, or turning non-prospects into solid relievers (Hanrahan, Jason Grilli, Chris Resop, Chris Leroux, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson).

Hanrahan and Melancon are in similar situations, which Charlie pointed out. Hanrahan had a strong season in 2008 and entered the 2009 season as Washington’s closer. He struggled in the role, with a 7.71 ERA in 32.2 innings, along with a 9.6 K/9 and a 3.9 BB/9 ratio. He was considered unlucky with a .431 BABIP. His numbers immediately turned around once he arrived in Pittsburgh, and he’s looked like a steal ever since.

Melancon put up a 2.78 ERA in 74.1 innings in 2011. He had a 7.99 K/9 and a 3.15 BB/9 ratio. His advanced metrics supported the ERA, with a 3.14 xFIP. He was traded to the Red Sox, where he struggled in 2012. The right-hander had a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings, with an 8.2 K/9, and a 2.4 BB/9. His strikeouts improved and his walks declined, which were both good signs. His big issue was a 22.2% HR/FB ratio. On average, pitchers tend to give up a homer in 10% of their fly balls. Melancon’s 22.2% was unsustainable and can be chalked up to bad luck. He gave up five in his first four outings, then just three the rest of the year after a demotion to Triple-A, so it looks like his numbers might have already turned around. His xFIP, which normalizes the HR/FB ratio to the league average, was a 3.45.

They’re different pitchers, but Hanrahan and Melancon are in similar situations. They both had dominant years, then had horrible ERAs the following season. Their ERAs were the result of bad luck. We saw that to be true with Hanrahan. We may have already seen it with Melancon and his drop in homers.

The comparison prompted me to take a look at what was said about Hanrahan back when he was acquired by the Pirates. At the time, Hanrahan was a throw-in. The Pirates and Nationals were swapping Nyjer Morgan and Lastings Milledge. The Pirates also sent Sean Burnett for Hanrahan, in a move that was supposed to even up the trade for Washington. Hanrahan ended up being the best from the deal, even though he had the lowest value at the time.

Charlie had a similar take on Hanrahan back then as he does with Melancon now. He pointed out the .451 BABIP and said you can dismiss the high ERA.

Keith Law called it an easy win for the Pirates, especially with Hanrahan in the deal.

The Washington Post noted Hanrahan’s disappointing season, then didn’t mention him until the end of the article, where they had a quote and a comment that he’d join the Pirates’ bullpen.

ESPN┬ájust noted that Hanrahan struggled, was demoted from the closer’s role, and would join the Pirates’ bullpen.

Dave Cameron called Hanrahan a nice buy-low candidate, and a better bet for the future than Burnett, although he said relievers are easy to come by.

Here was my take on the deal, noting Hanrahan as a buy-low candidate, and noting his .451 BABIP.

Most of the articles focused on Milledge and Morgan. The mentions of Hanrahan were brief. They either mentioned that he struggled, or they mentioned that but pointed out that he could bounce back. He wasn’t a big addition at the time, but all of the signs pointed to him being a buy-low option. That looks like Melancon’s situation, if he is indeed involved in the trade. He wouldn’t look like a big addition, but the signs are there for a bounce back season. He could provide a lot of value if that HR/FB rate normalizes next year, and could fill in as a strong set-up man to Jason Grilli.

The highlight of the links above was what Dave Cameron said. He noted that relievers are easy to come by, which is something I believe. Teams will trade multiple players for an established closer, or they’ll sign a top set-up guy to a $6 M per year salary, but all of that seems foolish. Every year top relievers emerge from nowhere. Jason Grilli was one of those relievers in the summer of 2011. He was with Philadelphia’s Triple-A team, and was basically free for anyone who wanted him. All they had to do was offer him a major league deal, and if the Phillies declined to match it, the new team would get Grilli. That’s what the Pirates did. That’s another interesting situation to look back on. Here are some of the reactions from that move, which came two weeks before the trade deadline when the Pirates were looking for relief pitching.

Jenifer Langosch said that Grilli might not fill the late-inning bullpen role the team was looking for.

Ken Rosenthal pointed out that the Pirates were looking for an established eighth-inning reliever, and that Grilli didn’t fit that description.

Charlie noted that Grilli added depth, but said he might not be an upgrade over Chris Leroux (who was optioned to make room).

I had a similar reaction, noting that the deal didn’t make sense for the Pirates, that Grilli was depth, and that Leroux was pitching well. Leroux had 5.2 shutout innings at the time, with seven strikeouts and no walks. That was after strong numbers in Double-A and Triple-A earlier in the year.

The reactions to Grilli were largely the same. The Pirates needed bullpen help. Established bullpen help. Grilli wasn’t established, so he didn’t fit their need. However, he ended up with some dominant numbers in 2011, had an amazing season in 2012, and parlayed that into a two-year, $6.75 M deal with the Pirates this off-season, along with the closer’s role once Hanrahan is dealt.

This is why I’ve always been all for dealing Hanrahan. It’s why adding someone like Melancon as the third piece in a Hanrahan deal would be a great idea. Too much value is placed on the perception that surrounds relievers. Relievers get value for experience in late innings. They lose value if they don’t have that experience. If they have one bad year, their value plummets. If they have one amazing year, their value soars. There’s some debate over whether this value is truly valid. I’m not a believer that pitching in the ninth inning is a skill. If a guy puts up great numbers in the seventh inning, he can do it in the 8th or 9th inning. Some disagree with that, and a lot of this thinking is what leads to relievers being over-valued in my book.

Hanrahan is a great reliever, but he’s replaceable. If you look past the faux-value with relievers, you’ll see that finding a replacement for Hanrahan shouldn’t be hard to do. The Pirates added Hanrahan as a throw-in, similar to the rumored inclusion of Melancon in this deal. Hanrahan and Melancon aren’t the exact same relievers, but the outcomes they can produce are similar. I would bet that a bullpen with Grilli/Melancon would be just as good as a bullpen with Hanrahan/Grilli. It’s only when you add that faux-value that you start to view Hanrahan as someone who is irreplaceable and Melancon as a total long-shot to turn things around. But that’s based on comfort, not skill. It’s based on being more comfortable with Hanrahan because he’s had two good years as a closer, and not being comfortable with Melancon coming off a bad year. When teams look past the comfort factor, they free themselves up to building strong bullpens without trading prospects or spending big dollars to get there. That saves the prospects and money for positions that are harder to fill.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. Order your copy today!

**Joel Hanrahan News: Sunday.

**Winter Leagues Recap: Johnson Pitches Team to Playoffs.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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