What's (Still) Up With Mark Melancon?

BOSTON, MA - Mark Melancon #37 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch in the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Let's flashback to a week ago, after Mark Melancon struggled against the Detroit Tigers in the Red Sox opening series:

Melancon is an extreme groundball pitcher who also strikes out hitters at a well above-average rate. He's been anything but in his short career with the Red Sox, though, as he had more flyball outs than groundball outs in his spring, and didn't induce grounders this weekend.

We're talking about just under 11 innings, with almost all of those coming in games that didn't count. As soon as tonight, Melancon's sinker and cutter could do what they're supposed to, and we'll forget all about this past weekend. But keep an eye on whether or not he's getting opponents to hit grounders for the next few weeks, as if the ball is in the air, and stays there, then something might be off with Melancon.

"As soon as tonight" never happened, with Melancon continuing to be a problem in the bullpen. Tuesday's game against Texas was supposed to be a chance for him to work out some mechanical issues with the Red Sox already down by six runs late, but instead turned into a nightmare. Melancon gave up three homers, six runs, walked two, and failed to record an out.

Melancon has now faced 18 batters, and retired just six of them. Despite pitching just two innings in relief, Melancon leads the American League in home runs allowed. In the past, he never gave up flyballs very much, never mind the long ball -- he's already matched last year's total home runs allowed, in 72 fewer innings.

Something is clearly wrong here. Melancon claims he feels fine physically, so it might not be an injury. What, then, is the issue with the 27-year-old who was supposed to be one of the team's most important relief contributors?

He's still not inducing groundballs -- if you couldn't gather that from the homers -- but it's not because of any change in the movement of his fastball. According to Pitch f/x website Brooks Baseball, his fastball is doing the same thing it's always done in terms of movement and velocity.

The problem is he's missing his spots, and missing them often. It doesn't matter if his fastball is still moving at 93 if he's leaving it up in the zone, or right down the heart of the plate. Major-league hitters don't let mistakes go by very often, and Melancon has been throwing mistakes.

Last night's appearance against the Rangers showed off this problem repeatedly. Ian Kinsler hit a double on Melancon's second pitch. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was setup low, beneath the strike zone, and Melancon ended up throwing a belt-high fastball that Kinsler turned on and nearly wall-balled. He missed Saltalamacchia's target with his fastball on three-straight pitches against Elvis Andrus, although the problem here was that he was too far outside and too low.

Melancon looked fine against Josh Hamilton early in the at-bat, getting him to miss on a low change-up, but he couldn't put him away with his fastball or the change, with Hamilton fouling off multiple pitches to stay alive. Melancon then left a curve up in the zone against Hamilton -- again, belt-high, well off Salty's target-- and the Texas lefty deposited that 440 feet into right field.

The very next pitch to Adrian Beltre was a fastball that Saltalamacchia setup outside and low for, and Melancon missed and grooved it inside. The result was a blast to center field that cleared the fence. The 1-0 pitch to David Murphy missed high, as did the 2-0 offering. Melancon walked Murphy on four pitches, three of those balls fastballs, before giving up yet another homer to his last batter, Nelson Cruz. That pitch was, you guessed it, a fastball left belt-high.

This appearance might remind you of Daisuke Matsuzaka's implosion against the Rays on April 11 last year. Like Melancon, Dice-K had seemingly no ability to hit the catcher's mitt, and pitch after pitch was left up for the Rays to crush. He threw 42 pitches, allowed seven runs, and lasted just two innings. Melancon threw 26 pitches, just 13 of them strikes, and failed to record an out. It seems hard to believe we got to see a Red Sox pitcher beat out Dice-K's horrendous start for Worst Appearance In Recent Memory, but here we are.

It wasn't just last night that has seen Melancon leaving pitches up. A look at Pitch f/x shows us that he's left most of his pitches in the middle or high this season -- that's no way to induce groundballs, regardless of the movement on the pitches:

Melancon_4-1_to_4-17_medium

(You can ignore the classifications, as this is raw Pitch f/x data.) We're talking about a low number of pitches, but part of that is Melancon's own doing. It's hard to justify seeing time on the mound in games that matter when you can't pitch effectively.

Since he turned a disappointing loss into a crushing blowout in his last appearance, the Red Sox just might have to send Melancon to Pawtucket to work on whatever it is that is causing his fastball to miss like this. He has an option, so he can be safely placed in Pawtucket for whatever amount of time he needs to get back to where he can be, and with Andrew Miller nearly ready to go, they even have a replacement on hand for the 25-man roster.

Melancon has some thoughts on what might be causing his problems -- he could be opening up too early, which leads to command loss, or it's giving hitters a clear look at what's coming. Those kind of mechanical issues are common, even in the very best of pitchers -- Justin Verlander struggled back in 2008 because he was pitching with his front side flying open, and that caused his velocity and location to suffer. It was corrected, and after a rough April and May where he struck out just 5.3 batters per nine and posted a 5.16 ERA, he came back around to looking like the Verlander everyone expected him to be.

That's just meant to remind you that a mechanical issue doesn't mean Melancon is broken, or never going to be good again. They can happen, and it can get ugly, for sure, but it's not the end of the line for Melancon, or an indication that the trade that brought him to Boston in the first place is a loss for the Sox. With the Red Sox already 4-7, though, it might make sense for them to let Melancon work things out in games that don't count in the standings, especially since they can give him more consistent work -- and hopefully get him righted sooner -- by sending him to Pawtucket.

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