When the Red Sox signed Edward Mujica to a two-year, $9.5 million contract, Tuesday night's near-meltdown was not what they had in mind. They did not sign the former Cardinals closer to mop-up garbage-time innings, and they certainly did not sign him to pitch them so badly as to force Koji Uehara into the game. They did not sign him to allow better than a run per inning, or to allow two baserunners per frame.
Given that this is exactly what he's done so far, it's understandable that Red Sox fans are not exactly thrilled. In fact, some have started to reference the ghosts of bullpens past when it's his time to take the mound. Eric Gagne, Bobby Jenks, Mark Melancon...
Actually, let's stop on that last one.
In late 2011, the Red Sox traded Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to the Astros in exchange for Melancon, who had produced a 2.78 ERA in 74 innings for the NL Central cellar dwellers. Ignoring just how awful that trade looks for various other reasons, Melancon's first four games in Boston resulted in six outs recorded, eleven runs surrendered, and a demotion to the minor leagues. When he returned, Melancon was largely relegated to mop-up duty, and was summarily traded in the offseason for Joel Hanrahan because, yes, the story can get worse.
It's easy to draw those parallels between Melancon and Mujica. A former NL closer comes into Boston and sucks. Good riddance to bad rubbish, let's be done with them, right?
Since leaving Boston, Mark Melancon has pitched 83 innings of 1.41 ERA baseball, allowing 76 baserunners in those innings, striking out 79 batters and walking nine. He has been the third most valuable relief pitcher (by fWAR) in baseball over that period, trailing only Greg Holland and, of course, Koji Uehara. It's more than anyone could have expected given his time in Boston. But it's not quite as far off as some would think. After his return to the majors, Melancon was a pretty solid reliever for the Red Sox, allowing just a .597 OPS against in 43 innings, striking out 40 and walking 10.
The lesson to take away from this? Nine innings is not enough to judge any pitcher on. There is certainly something troubling Mujica right now. Whether it's an injury, a mechanical issue, or he's just not feeling it, that split fastball that used to eat up batters has not been dipping the way it used to, leaving Mujica the victim of plenty of hard contact over this first month. It's possible this is it for Mujica. That, at age 29, he has seen his peak and left it behind. Or maybe he's one of those pitchers who just can't handle the American League, even though by the ninth inning most National League teams are dipping into their more robust benches to find tougher matchups.
More likely, it's a bad month from a good pitcher. The kind that's inflated by the kind of bad defense the Red Sox have been playing of late, and the small sample sizes that come with all relievers. It may be tough for John Farrell to trust him with big moments anytime soon, but it's certainly not yet time to give up on another talented reliever.