First Pitch: The Sequel to the Mark Melancon Trade

There are two things I feel should be common knowledge by now about relief pitchers.

1. Relief pitchers are very volatile.

2. ERA is a horrible stat to evaluate relievers.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had success finding strong relievers at low costs because they’ve ignored short-term struggles, and have looked past a poor ERA to see potential with advanced metrics. Meanwhile, other teams give out long-term deals to relievers, paying them millions of dollars, and mostly for the ERA.

Eventually other teams are going to get it, but it doesn’t look like that has happened yet.

The trade between the Angels and the Pirates looks like the Mark Melancon trade all over again. The Pirates sent Jason Grilli for Ernesto Frieri. They dealt an aging reliever who looks like he’s on a rapid decline, for a 28-year-old reliever who throws 94 MPH, has put up solid numbers in the past, has an inflated ERA, but has advanced metrics that say he should be better, and a glaring HR/FB ratio that screams bad luck.

In Melancon’s 2012 season, he had a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings. His strikeouts were fine. His walks were a career best. But his home run rate was high, due to a 22.2% HR/FB ratio. He had been around 10% previously in his career. His xFIP, which normalized the HR/FB rate, was 3.45. Melancon has obviously made some bigger strides than just seeing his HR/FB ratio normalize. His walks continued to go down, and he just doesn’t allow home runs anymore. But even without any further changes, he could have expected to see a rebound from his ERA in 2012.

It looks like Frieri is in the exact same situation. He has a 6.39 ERA in 31 innings. His strikeouts are fine. His walks are a career best. His home run rate is high, with a 21.1% HR/FB ratio. His career ratio is 10%. His xFIP is 3.20. That’s almost exactly the same scenario that Melancon was in when he came over.

Here is my prediction on what will happen with this deal. Frieri’s home run rate will go back to normal, and as a result his ERA will go back to a normal rate. This has nothing to do with PNC Park, moving to the NL, or changing teams in general. There’s just no way he continues with a 21% HR/FB ratio, as we’ve seen by the other 231 innings in his career. The Pirates might have some other adjustments in mind, which could allow him to see bigger improvements going forward. But they don’t have to do much to watch Frieri return to being a good reliever. They just have to look past ERA, and realize that the nature of relief pitchers will lead to some horrible numbers in a small sample size such as this one.

From there, the Pirates will control Frieri through the 2016 season. He’ll be a late inning option, and maybe even a closer option. Meanwhile, even if Grilli rebounds with the Angels, he’ll be a free agent after the season. So if the Pirates are going to get a rebound from anyone, it’s better that it comes from Frieri, since they control him beyond the 2014 season.

These seem like bold predictions. A guy with a 6.39 ERA will turn things around. He will be a late inning option. But they’re not really bold predictions. They actually feel kind of obvious, like I’m predicting that Andrew McCutchen will hit another home run this year. We’ve seen this story play out so many times that it just amazes me when teams like the Angels trade away a guy like Frieri. This move makes absolutely no sense for the Angels, and it makes all the sense in the world for the Pirates.

I keep thinking that eventually teams will catch on and won’t make moves like this anymore. But here we are, two years after the Mark Melancon trade, and teams are still making moves like that. I wrote at the time that it was a strong chance Melancon would bounce back and be a good reliever. He did just that, and became one of the best relievers in baseball. And now the Angels have made what looks like a very similar trade, only they’re not getting a reliever with good numbers like the Red Sox got with Joel Hanrahan.

One day teams might catch on. Until then, the Pirates will probably keep trying this move as often as they can.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Harold Ramirez Extends Hit Streak to 19 Games

**Pirates Plan to Get Connor Joe Reps Behind the Plate in Fall League

**Pirates Trade Jason Grilli to Angels For Ernesto Frieri

**Luis Heredia Headed in the Wrong Direction

**Prospect Highlights: Hits From Willy Garcia and Elias Diaz, Thoughts on Both Players

**Minor League Schedule: Second Outing For Billy Roth Tonight

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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  • Alex Henry

    Agreed. Great move by the Pirates. 9 years young and 2 more years off
    control. I have always like Frieri and honestly wanted the Pirates to
    grab him the SD back in 2012 when he was traded to LAA. When i saw they
    got him just for Grilli i was very happy. Can’t wait for him to come in
    and silence those who somehow believe this is a bad trade. I believe he
    will be he Closer if not at some point this season Next season for sure.
    He will be worth the money.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Excellent comparison of Frieri of 2014 to Melancon of 2012. Jason Grilli came in and averaged 93.6 mph on his fastball in 2012; that dropped to 93.3 in 2013, and now 92.7 so far in 2014. The FB has been getting hit as a result of the lower velocity and Grilli’s inability to command that pitch within the zone. To make it worse, he has not been able to throw any other pitch for strikes on a consistent basis. Frieri on the other hand has been a solid 94 mph average on his FB which means we will see some 95 from him. The 9 years younger and team control through 2016 make me wonder why he was available so cheap – a definite head-scratcher.

    • Will Sanchez

      except Melancon wasn’t making 3.8 mill..The FO won’t pay 6-8 mill for a starting pitcher let alone a reliever that they can find a “dime a dozen” the best hope is fix him and trade him..otherwise another “DFA”

      • lsutton

        Except we saved money this year by trading the 4.25 million salary of Grilli for the 3.8 salary of Frieri. With his horrid ERA and him no longer getting saves in the first half, his arb wont go up a ton. Best case, he makes between 4-5 and we keep him another year. Worst case, we dont bring him back. He wont make 6-8 million unless he takes over the closer role an dominates.

      • freddylang

        They paid for Grilli.

  • mam995

    Tim,one day, baseball will join the 21st century. It hasn’t happened yet, at least not in terms of how it’s managed in the front office. Of course, this looks like a dumb deal for the Angels. Any advance scouting at all, would have told them, that Grilli is washed up. I wrote last week, that after listening to Hurdle talk about him after his latest imploding fiasco, I was all but certain, that they would cut him. I am glad that they found a “mark”. It is painfully OBVIOUS that the Angels did not do their due dilligence on this trade. But, then again, the big market teams just THROW money at their problems. I mean, just look at what the Pirates are paying Andrew McCutchen as opposed to what the Yankees are paying Jacoby Ellsbury. They are paying almost 3 TIMES as much for lesser production. From a baseball business standpoint, just because you can AFFORD to do something, doesn’t mean, that you should do it. The man’s over 30. He is not even in his baseball prime. He will have dimminishing returns on that contract. The Angels got Zack Greinke for a half a season by giving up an up and coming Jean Segura, a HITTING shortstop. Do you know how difficult it is to find a potential SUPERSTAR at that position? Like you wrote last week, the Pirates are drafting and signing a TON of shortstops, hoping to get lucky and develop even ONE. What the Angels did, if the Pirates were to do something like that..it would be akin to them trading away Gregory Polanco for a 3 month rental player…NUTS!!! Under the current circumstances in baseball and given the fact, that there is no salary cap at the major league level that would FORCE major league teams to compete by managerial savviness (and we’re talking about ownership and the front office) ESPECIALLY when it comes to the big market teams, the salvation of the small market team, their CORE COMPENTENCIES (the things that they do best) has to be: YOU TEACH, YOU DRAFT, YOU DEVELOP, YOU FIX OR RESTORE SIDE-TRACKED PLAYERS TO THEIR POTENTIALS, AND FINALLY, YOU SIGN AND MANAGE PLAYER CONTRACTS IN A RESPONSIBLE MANNER. I would also add, that you have to be shrewd in trade negotiations and scouting. You wrote about the value of Jim Benedict to the Pirates (regarding their ability to compete as a small market team) and that article was SPOT on. I hope that everyone on this site had a chance to read it.

    • NorCalBuc

      mam ~ I feel you’ve just elaborated on TBMTIB (The Best Management Team In Baseball)

    • spazaru

      All good points, but compared to the A’s, the Pirates are amateurs at everything you mention. I would kill for the Pirates to be getting the results the A’s are getting. Whatever their secret is, no one else seems to know it.

      • bucsws2014

        How many WS appearances/titles does Billy Beane have again?

        Yes, the A’s have been mostly competitive this century. But the model still has flaws. The minute the Bucs actually win a WS (or maybe even just get to one), the Bucs model will have exceeded the A’s model.

        • spazaru

          I agree it still has flaws, but for them to be doing it with no payroll and no fan support and in a crappy stadium, I think it’s more of an accomplishment. The Bucs only look really good because before the last two years, they were absolutely pathetic for 20 years and this in one of the best sports towns in America. It’s not impossible the Bucs get to a World Series before the A’s, but I wouldn’t bet my money on it.

        • Will Sanchez

          so and how many do the Pirates have….hell they can even play .500 ball..Miami,Astros ,and Cubs have made more “progress”

          we are 6 1/2 yrs into “TBMTIB” .Iif it wasn’t for the A.J Trade and martin signing ..we would have not been above 500 last year..and the streak of 21 LOOSING YEARS WOULD BE INTACT..

          • Henduck

            Yeah, they wouldn’t have won if it wasn’t for the moves that they made.

            I think you’re “LOOSING” your argument.

            • Will Sanchez

              the things we do to keep our “JOBS”..if they would have not traded the prospects for one month rentals the “TBMTIB” could possibly be looking for new jobs

              • Lee Young

                and what was our record AFTER getting those rentals? They didn’t put us over the top.

                Sorry…you LOOSE again.

                See how long it takes ‘expansion’ teams (like we were) to turn it around. Check in on Houston in a few years. Look at KC, who are still struggling. Even Billy Beane had some down years just a little while ago.

                You ‘6 1/2 year’ trolls must think NH should’ve come in and turned us around in 2 or 3 years. Ain’t happening!!! NO GM can do that unless pieces are already in place. We had maybe two or 3 batters (tops) AND NO PITCHING WHATSOVER.

                He had to TOTALLY rebuild the system!

                • Will Sanchez

                  Miami did it ..not only once but twice..as far as rebuilding.. other teams maintained a competive teams ..Rays A’s,Twins “a bird on hand is worth 2 in the BUSH”..just take a look at the history of trades that they made 6, 5 4 and 3 years ago.and honestly tell me that they were good trades…”when daddy Nutting gives you $1 and ask for steak..what do you think you are going to bring back..no filet Mignon for you…maybe 1/2 a pound of “Ground Chuck” so to defend “coon-hunt-nutts” team does not wash…they lack a backup plan and the backup plan to the backup plan and so -on..why did they take 3 years to get a 1-b back in 2012 we knew that we needed one…where is the backup plan to Pedro ” $ 7 mill bonus” wiffs all the time….it cost us 4 prospects to get a 1b..and that not even a long term solution at 1b..

                  • lsutton

                    so you spend your time going on the Internet as a pirates fan and…. hating the team? Talk about wasting your time and just wanting to complain. Always is 1 guy who love to hate on the team. You are Randy Quaid in Major League.

                    • Will Sanchez

                      I don’t hate THE TEAM..I HATE THE NUTTIGS..for pocketing 20-30 million a year and not spending it “wisely”
                      and i don’t mean giving someone a 200 mill contract.I would PAY FOR performance..basic salary and incentives..split contracts etc..but i firmly believe that some players really hate playing for the BUCS..otherwise it would be easy to SIGN FA.all things being equal..and that is not happening..Milb and mlb FA should be killing themselves for the opportunity to be in an upcoming club..and THAT IS NOT HAPPENING..

                    • lsutton

                      You dont know what you are talking about when you say “pocket the money” because that isnt what happens when they dont increase payroll. But hey, dont let that get in the way of a good theme based on assumption. Yeah, its easy to sign FA for most teams. Or not. You speak like a fan who isnt running a business, which is what the pirates are for the front office.

          • bucsws2014

            As I write this, the Bucs are over .500 and Miami, the Cubs and Astros aren’t. So what is it you’re trying to say?

            “Loosing”… is that Pittsburghese? As in, “the bolt was stuck until I tried loosing it with some 3-n’-1.”

            • Will Sanchez

              ITS simple..NO TEAM have lost as many games as the Pirates HAVE in the Past 20 years..and u can thank the Nuttings for this ..since they controlled the board of directors for the past 20 years first the father and then the son..

              • Andrew

                Sic semper evello mortem Nutting!

                • Will Sanchez

                  no death to anyone..just for the nuttings to stop lining their pockets..(spend) to give Pittsburgh a winning team more than 1 in 20..Miami have twice rebuild and have gone tothe WS us zilch..nada..empty cupboard..

        • freddylang

          Agreed. But I would rather my team be poor and lose in the playoffs than go back to the last 20 years.

    • Andrew

      Honestly is this a parody, Jean Segura hasn’t hit since the end May last year, and seems a bit myopic to rail about the ineptitude of Angles’ scouting when this team did draft Mike Trout in the 20s. Angles biggest problem is their owner too often gets involved in baseball decisions. The salvation of small market teams is that free agency spending is highly inefficient.

      I said this on the trade thread but I think the concern with Ernesto Frieri is that he is completely dependent upon his
      fastball and his swinging strikes rates overall this season is 9.6%, after being 15.1% over the last two seasons. If you are reliant upon the fastball and hitters are making more contact bad things will happen.

      I still like the trade and think Frieri is a much better bet to be effective going forward, I didn’t think that Grilli had much trade value, but this is a bit over the top.

      • bucsws2014

        If one reads the Angels forums posts about this deal, a couple of things become clear – this was essentially a salary dump. They’ll pay Grilli this year, but are free of Frieri’s salary going forward. Also, the Angels are a mess because no two of the manager, GM or owner appear to be on the same page on much of anything except Mike Trout.

        A frequent reference from Moneyball on this deal from an Angels fan perspective is Sciosia telling DiPoto the lineup is his and he’ll keep sending Frieri out there, with DiPoto saying, “Well you can’t since I just traded him to the Pirates.”

        • Andrew

          The salary relief angle is a bit laughable, money saved won’t cover the increase due to Hamilton next year. The Hamilton and Pujols signings came down from ownership, the Angles issues start there and I think Scioscia is a very overrated as a manager.

          That said the Angles are pretty damn good team, I really like the Trumbo trade.

        • honus1

          Frieri is not owed any salary beyond this season; not sure how that is a salary dump.

        • Will Sanchez

          $200,000.00 difference is not a “SALARY DUMP” 3.8 vs 4.0 Mill. Frieri’s can be “DFA” or traded before next year ARBITRATION hearings..

          • bucsws2014

            All I can say is read the Agnels boards. that’s their interpretation, not mine.

        • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

          Duh, Grilli makes 200k MORE than Frieri and can be DFAed after the season. It’s the Pirates that are dumping salary.

  • Zoltan McBurgher

    That’s why they call us Pirates. We rob, pillage and steal and also apparently pawn off even the ship’s expired cheese.

  • William Wallace

    Jason Grilli was a very good piece to this team for two years. I wish him well and hope that he regains his magic the remainder of the season except when we play the Angels. I hope Guy Fieri can teach us all how to make those crispy fish tacos. Is he bringing his car with him?

    • Lee Young

      I prefer the grilled fish taco salads….my old stomach isn’t allowed fried foods anymore.

      : :) :) :) :)

  • Lee Young

    One fly in the ointment?

    Although Frieri has two more years of team control, it is unlikely — barring an amazing turnaround — the Pirates would be interested in bringing him back. His salary next season, in his second year of arbitration, would not likely be one the Pirates would be interested in taking on considering the quality of his 2014 work. He is already making $3.8 mil.

    If he DOES turn it around, he’s going to get a lot more than $3.8 mil I would think. If he DOESN’T turn it around, we non-tender him.

    Either way, we only have him for the rest of this year?

    • C Shint

      He’s in arbitration, they typically will give a bigger raise for things like saves, which Frieri won’t be doing here. So if he turns it around he may see a slight salary bump but I think the Pirates keep him at least for one more year, and then flip him next season (if he turns it around). Of course, as you say if he doesn’t turn it around in the next 3 months then we just let him walk anyways.

      • Matt Beam

        agree, this is the most likely scenario

    • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

      He is in sense auditioning for next year as a 7th inning guy. If he returns to his former abilities, he will be the closer next year, and well worth whatever they reward him in arbitration. If not he will be traded or DFAd. Still worth a lot more than what Grilli is worth at this point. Great trade!

  • bucsws2014

    When I read the headline, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be about Frieri or about how the Melancon trade cost the team the services of Brock Holt which in turn allowed Josh Harrison to own the super-utility role. Josh is having a phenomenal year. But Holt is almost as amazing up in Boston.

    So maybe in addition to the system’s focus on developing pitchers, catchers and SS’s, maybe the Bucs are proving capable of creating a super-utility player factory :-)

    • Wabbit_Season

      um. Outfielders too. Lots and lots of pretty good outfielders.

      -BB

  • Kevin_Young

    Not to call out an entire group of people, but the Angels blogging community is an extremely dumb bunch.

    • freddylang

      Fans of teams who just buy their rosters are in over their heads when they are talking to fans of low revenue teams…and Pirates fans are arguably the most educated of them all.

  • leadoff

    I am not sold on Melancon as a closer, IMO, he is a setup man and I think the Pirates can find a little better closer, it could be Frieri if they can get him right.

    • lsutton

      Based on what? Melancon’s stats have been great this year and has plenty of quality saves. Seems fans always mistrust the guy who is closing until he becomes an all star. No reason to demote Melancon until he actually starts struggling.

      • leadoff

        Stats don’t always tell the truth, I don’t see the same fastball I saw last year, I see a shakier pitcher, I see a pitcher that gets into trouble more than he did last year. What I want to see is a guy like Melancon was last year, someone that gets guys out without giving someone a heart attack.

        As I said, I am not sold on Melancon as a closer, that does not mean that I don’t think he can close occasionally and I am not looking for an all-star.

        • lsutton

          Sorry, but ill generally trust the stats over the “eyeball” test. Not saying your point isnt a fine one and doesnt have merit, but the eyes can trick you. Stats dont always tell a great truth, but human beings dont always see the real truth either. His FIP, xFIP and SIERA are all quality.

        • bucsws2014

          Melancon’s Achilles heel is patient hitters who can cover the lower outside corner and take him opposite field. A few teams figured that out late last year (most notably the Cards, although the Padres of all teams figured it out first). As a result he needs to mix in more of his less effective pitches to make the cutter work.

          So as long as he can keep locating his fastball inside to set up the cutter, I’m not all that concerned about him as a closer. I’m not expecting anyone to be a perfect 25-25 at this point. Huston Street might be a better option, but I’m not sold at investing in him – or any closer – at a high cost.

          Watson is already being used in most situations before the 9th where the opponent’s 2-5 hitters are up. He should be able to step in should Melancon fold. I’d actually prefer if Hurdle didn’t just give Melancon the closer role and used both MM and TW for awhile.

  • Spa City

    PNC is friendly to flyable pitchers, and it suppresses HR more than any park other than China Basin in SF and Fenway. It should suit Frieri’s flyable tendencies. Relief pitcher performance fluctuates for almost everybody but Mariano Rivera. It is great to see DiPoto get frustrated due to his old fashioned method of analyzing RP performance. Huntington knows what Recency Bias is, and he does not get fooled by Small Sample Sizes. I really like this move for the Bucs. The Bucs have enjoyed success picking up RPs who had been discarded prematurely – Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli himself.