Mark Melancon has been in the American League East before, albeit briefly. Over the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the right-hander threw 20-1/3 unimpressive frames for the New York Yankees, before he was dealt to the Houston Astros in the Lance Berkman trade. Almost immediately, his results improved, as he punched out 19 batters in 17-1/3 innings and posted a 3.12 ERA to close out the year. (To be fair, though, he had all of four innings in 2010 before that -- not exactly a sample to write about.)
It was surprising to see Melancon struggle out of the gate with New York. While he wasn't considered an elite relief arm by any means, his performances had been nearly universally productive in the minor leagues: his loftiest ERA in a full-season league 3.67 at Triple-A, a figure accompanied by 9.3 strikeouts per nine and a 1.9 K/BB. Overall, though, he showed that kind of strikeout potential (8.8 per nine in 216 minor league innings) with better control (2.8 walks per nine and 3.2 K/BB).
Melancon wasn't a top minor leaguer in the Yankees' system, but he was still considered an actual prospect. He could have been a first-round pick instead of a ninth-round selection, but an elbow injury made him a riskier choice. Baseball America rated him as the #15 prospect before the 2007 season, and that was with the knowledge he would miss the entire year due to Tommy John surgery. He was described as having "power stuff that fits the closer profile" thanks to his ability to move between the low-and-mid 90s with his heater combined with a 12-to-6 hammer curve.
That stuff was on display -- and with positive results -- in the minors, but it's hard for prospect mavens to get too worked up about a guy who is known to be on track as a pretty good reliever instead of an elite one. The needle didn't move much in the wrong direction after his brief New York struggles, with Kevin Goldstein rating Melancon the #16 prospect in the Astros system heading in to 2011, among the two stars that populated the Houston farm, a year after being the #10 prospect in the Yankees system and a three-star player.
His delivery was described as high-effort by both Baseball America and Goldstein, and was believed to have put the stress on his elbow that necessitated Tommy John surgery. Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure has been intent on modifying mechanics slightly to lower the chances of injury, but we haven't seen anything specific come out about work with Melancon yet this spring -- given Melancon's past with TJ, one would hope the Red Sox are working on it without sacrificing Melancon's ability to harness his stuff and command.
That delivery has helped him to 8.3 punch outs per nine against 3.2 walks per nine the last two years and 95-2/3 innings, good for a 2.6 K/BB. He's also limited homers (0.7 per nine, just seven allowed) despite pitching in a park that increases homer production for both lefties (107 park factor) and righties (117). It's very much in line with his minor league production, and while it isn't outright dominating, it's real good stuff to get out of a seventh or eighth inning hurler. If not for Andrew Bailey's presence, Melancon as closer wouldn't be an issue, even if he would be a significant change from having Jonathan Papelbon and his high punch out rates around.
Melancon is coming to a park that, while limiting homers far more than Minute Maid did, is a better offensive environment overall. How much that will mess with Melancon's numbers isn't known, but thanks to his groundball-centric ways, it might not be anything significant. Melancon has heavy sink on his heater, and thanks to that, has induced 54 percent grounders in his 112 career innings in the majors on that pitch (and 56 percent overall). He doesn't miss many bats with it at all -- Brooks Baseball has him with a 0.16 z-score -- but his fastball is excellent at inducing grounders, as it's more than two standard deviations about the mean. That pitch has a purpose, and it more often than not succeeds at it. When he wants hitters to whiff, he brings out the bender, as that has a z-score of 1.8 when it comes to swings-and-misses.
All indications are that his stuff -- a combination of strikeouts and groundballs -- will play up in the AL East, as it's the kind of repertoire that plays up anywhere. He struggled in his original stint in baseball's toughest division, but it was in a short stretch where he was fighting for a job in a crowded Yankee bullpen. Having Melancon around is a good, as he's a deserving next-in-line to close behind the oft-injured Andrew Bailey, and is also under team control with the Red Sox for the next five years. It cost the Red Sox to acquire him, but he'll likely be worth it.