Friday, 28 December 2012

Hanrahan Trade: Mark Melancon

The most experienced player acquired by Neal Huntington in return for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt, right-hander Mark Melancon has appeared in 147 games across four seasons for the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox. He has some experience in closing games, notching 20 Saves with Houston in 2011, so he can reasonably be viewed as a potential replacement for Hanrahan. If he is indeed to close for the Bucs, he will need to outperform Jason Grilli (recently resigned for 2013-14 at $6.75m and discussed here.) in Spring Training. No small task given Grilli's 2012 performance. He will also need to show that some shaky performances for Boston this season were hiccups, rather than his ceiling.

Here is Melancon's output pitching for Houston in 2011: These are mostly solid, if unspectacular numbers, but with a good strikeouts-to-walks ratio and manageable WHIP. Had he built on this in 2012, Melancon may have established himself as one of Boston's top relievers. Looking at his basic 2012 numbers, it appears as if he had a total collapse in performance this season. Overall, he posted a 6.20 ERA, allowing 8 home runs in only 45.1 innings of work. At a glance, this would make his acquisition by the Pirates appear questionable. Luckily for Melancon - and the Bucs - his ERA and home run totals are particularly misleading. They are heavily skewed by four disastrous April appearances in which he retired only 6 of 18 batters he faced, gave up 5 long balls and had a slugging percentage against of 1.733. His ERA in April was... wait for it... 49.50! Unsurprisingly, the Red Sox optioned him to AAA Pawtucket to see if he could recover his stuff and confidence.

This is where his performance across the rest of 2012 becomes interesting - and makes him much more appealing as a late-inning option out of the Bucco's bullpen in 2013. Melancon terrorized AAA hitters in 21 minor league games. In 21.2 innings, he allowed only 2 earned runs, struck out 27 batters (11.2 K/9), walked only 3 (1.2 BB/9), and posted a matching WHIP and ERA of 0.83. That's pretty dominant. Question is, could he perform adequately in the Majors? The Sox recalled him in June, and he pitched well that month. Passable results followed in July and August, but he was near unhittable in September, with opponents managing only .114/.162/.143 against him. If one ignores his April - and to be fair, A.J. Burnett routinely had his May 2, 2.2 IP, 12 ER debacle against St. Louis conveniently forgotten about by most people - then Melancon had a very respectable return in 2012. To quote myself:
The more you dig, the more evidence there is to be found that Melancon could be successful out of the 'pen for the Bucs. His strikeout rate climbed month-on-month throughout the season, from 4.5 K/9 in April, through 5.9 (June), 7.3 (July), 8.3 (August) to an outstanding 11.7 K/9 in September. This may well be due to increased velocity in his fastball later in the season, though I suspect increased confidence from his time at AAA also contributed.

The increased velocity may have a downside however, as - according to - he has a 'high-effort delivery'. He missed the whole of 2007 after injuring his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery whilst with New York. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to throw as hard as he did at the end of 2012 in 2013. Again according to Pirates Prospects, his repertoire is based around a mid-90s mph four-seamer and cutter, with a 12-6 power curve as his stock out pitch. Looking at FanGraphs, he appears to mix his pitches well so as not to be over-reliant on any one, and adds in a change-up now and again.

All in all, Melancon is - by far - the most important piece that Pirates' management will be relying on to make the Hanrahan trade a success. Clearly, he has the potential to do very well, with a ceiling at least as high as Hanrahan's was when he arrived in Pittsburgh in '09. The Pirates' staff have done an admirable job in getting the best out of relief pitchers in recent seasons. I see no reason why this shouldn't continue with Mark Melancon.


P.S. Just for reference, I have included Melancon's statistics in NL Central ballparks for the sake of completeness. The sample size is too small (given that Minute Maid Park will be in the AL West next year) to say very much, but these are the stadiums in which Melancon should see the most action in 2013. Enjoy!

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Pirates Trade Hanrahan To Red Sox

So, it'll be Hammer Time in Boston in 2013, not Pittsburgh. Finalized on Boxing Day, the Pirates agreed to send All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, along with 2B prospect Brock Holt, to the Red Sox in return for RHPs Mark Melancon and Stolmy Pimentel, OF/1B Jerry Sands and 2B Iván De Jesus Jr.

Inevitably, the trade has drawn the ire of some Bucs fans:
Indeed, on the surface it appears that the Pirates have dealt away one of the premier closers in baseball, accompanied by a prospect who has already debuted in the Majors, whilst receiving four players with mostly limited major league experience. Given Hanrahan's expected 2013 salary of around $7m, cynics will be bound to see the trade as a salary dump, symptomatic of the club's financial approach under the ownership of Bob Nutting. Whether this turns out to be the case or not - regardless of the organization's intention - will be determined by the performance of the players involved in 2013 and beyond. A salary dump is only a salary dump in reality if a) the player with the big salary continues to perform at the same level and b) the players picked up fail to make a significant impression.

One can only speculate as to whether Nutting wanted Hanrahan's salary off the books at - if you'll excuse the pun - any cost, or whether GM Neal Huntington genuinely believes he got the better side of this deal. However, we can look at the players and circumstances involved to see how the trade will impact the Pirates in the coming season and the future. Hanrahan is clearly the biggest piece in the trade, so I'll start with him and look at the other 5 in separate posts. He's coming off a second straight season of 35+ saves, something only Milwaukee's John Axford and Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel have managed in the same span. Saves, like Wins for starting pitchers and RBIs for hitters, are the statistic which get people drooling over closing pitchers. The more saves you rack up, the more you're likely to be worth. In fact, relief pitching in general is becoming incredibly expensive. Witness 3-year deals signed by Brandon League ($22.5m, Dodgers), Jonathan Broxton ($21m, Reds) and Jeremy Affeldt ($18m, Giants). (As an aside, both Axford and Kimbrel will likely earn less than $600,000 in 2013, as pre-arbitration players)

Hanrahan's circa $7m for 2013 would be in line with the annual value of these contracts, so for a lot of clubs, keeping him would have been a no-brainer. However, the Pirates payroll projects to be somewhere in the region of $70m next season. That would mean Hanrahan would have been due about 10% of all the money paid to Pirates' players in 2013. That's a lot for 4% of the pitching workload (59.2 IP out of 1433.1). Whilst that's clearly an oversimplification of a closer's role and value, it does put Joel's salary in some kind of perspective. It is also worth noting that there were some clues down the stretch that he may not continue to produce at the outstanding level he has over the last two years. It was noticeable that he allowed more baserunners later in the season, and his control over the course of the year was less than stellar (5.4 BB/9), leading to a lower strikeouts-to-walks ratio (1.86, down from 3.81) despite striking out batters at a higher rate.

In terms of how Hanrahan's departure will affect the Pirates, it seems all but certain that having re-signed Jason Grilli to a 2-year, $6.75m deal in mid-December, the club expect him to take on the mantle of closer. Assuming his performance doesn't collapse, Grilli could be even more successful in this role than Hanrahan. In 2012, the 36-year old struck out an unholy 13.8 batters per 9 innings, had a lower walk rate (3.4 BB/9) and held opponents to a lower OBP (.285) than Hanrahan (.307). He also replicated the Hammer's dominance of left-handed batters, despite a much higher batting average on balls in play (.314 against .172). Clint Hurdle's other option is likely to be Melancon, who has some excellent peripheral statistics but struggled in some high-leverage situations last season. At this stage it looks like Grilli in the 9th with Melancon possibly setting-up in the 8th.

All of this is pure speculation, of course. Joel Hanrahan proved he could handle the 9th inning and ended up as one of the Pittsburgh Pirates' greatest closers, as well as one of Neal Huntington's most shrewd acquisitions. It also seems that he was an outstanding contributor to the city of Pittsburgh and its community off the field as well as being a presence in the locker room. Clearly, his departure is a loss for the city, the club and its fans, but one of the few things the Pirates' management have shown in recent years is an ability to put together a reliable bullpen. Grilli (and hopefully Melancon) should allow that to continue.

As for the Red Sox, they clearly believe Hanrahan will continue to produce at an All-Star level, having already named him their closer, making Andrew Bailey's future uncertain. Well, good luck to them, and especially to Joel Hanrahan. Hammer, you will be missed!


Monday, 24 December 2012

Steelers Eliminated From Playoffs

You know that thoughtless, unwanted present that ruins Christmas for everyone? The one that prompts awkward conversation and probing questions? Well, the Pittsburgh Steelers delivered one hell of a disappointing early Christmas present to their fans yesterday, all wrapped up in ghastly black and orange tiger print paper, losing 13-10 to Cincinatti. Another lacklustre offensive performance, combined with numerous mistakes and errors in execution left the Steelers and their fans on the outside of the NFL Playoff bubble looking in for only the second time in Mike Tomlin's six-season tenure. The club must now beat Cleveland - not as certain an outcome as you might think, given the Browns' 20-14 victory in Week 12 - to avoid their first losing season under Tomlin.

Falling from 6-3 to 7-8 by losing 5 of 6 games is always going to be disappointing. It is the manner in which the Steelers have dropped the last 3 games in a row, effectively slamming the Playoff door in their own face, which is particularly difficult to understand. With victory over the Ravens in Week 13 with Charlie Batch under center, they had a 7-5 record, Ben Roethlisberger back and games against the 4-8 San Diego Chargers and (at that stage) 6-6 Dallas Cowboys (no longer 'America's Team' according to Roethlisberger, as if anyone outside of Dallas still thought they were!) up next. Sitting pretty, right?

Well, no, as it turns out. I won't dissect the embarrassing nature of the San Diego loss - others have already done that. I won't even talk about Todd Haley's play-calling against Dallas. What I will do is try and look at how the Steelers managed to lose yesterday. Because that's what happened. On the LIVE post-game show, Tunch Ilkin said that 'more games are lost than won in the National Football League, and if that was ever a truism, it manifested itself in the Pittsburgh Steelers.' He couldn't be more right about yesterday. Despite a gorgeous 60-yard TD toss from Ben to Antonio Brown and generally solid play from the returning Rashard Mendenhall, the offense was provided with numerous opportunities to score points and win the game, but repeatedly failed to capitalise.

The defense turned in a dominant performance overall. Andy Dalton had a sub-60 QB rating and was sacked six times; A.J. Green was held off the scoresheet; Bengals' RBs had 14 yards on 16 carries; Cincinatti converted only 25% of third downs. And Cortez Allen...well all Cortez Allen did was force three turnovers all by himself, including this spectacular play. There's only so much the defensive unit can do to keep an offense in a game, and turnovers are the best way to do so. Allen provided three chances for #7 and the offense to score. So, gladly accepting these timely seasonal gifts from the D, the offense promptly wasted them. The first two Bengals' turnovers, the Pittsburgh went three-and-out and punted. After the third turnover, they drove 13 yards...and punted. Points scored off turnovers: Zero.

The biggest waste came when, after Allen's first pick, the ball was on the Cincinatti 32, within range for Shaun Suisham. Next came the all-too-predictable one-two punch of Jonathan Dwyer up the middle on 1-10, and Jonathan Dwyer up the middle on 2-6. Bear in mind this would have given Suisham a very makeable 45-yard attempt if there was no gain on the next play. Then, inexcusably, came exactly the sort of play that has made Steelers fans curse for the last goodness knows how long. Third down, in field-goal range, looking for an opportunity to keep driving for a touchdown, pass play called. This can mean only one thing: Roethlisberger goes down under the not-inconsiderable weight of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Brilliant. The one totally unacceptable result, forcing a punt when starting 32 yards from the goal-line.

Now, Roethlisberger may not have been responsible for that sack - the pocket collapsed around him faster than a Pirates season after a 19-inning loss - but he was certainly at fault for letting Cincinatti have opportunities to score. Which of course they did. Bengals points off turnovers: 10. Perhaps it was the Christmas spirit, but Ben could hardly have been more generous without gift-wrapping the ball. He certainly hand-delivered it to Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson. Hall was apparently invisible standing right next to Heath Miller - the only receiver Roethlisberger even glanced at on the play - when Roethlisberger filled his stocking with a pick-six. And somehow, Ben was so into using Air Mail to deliver his gifts that he managed to badly overthrow Mike Wallace - not once, but twice - the second pass landing in the waiting arms of Nelson. Dalton then hit Green for a 21-yard gain - one of the few times the defense were caught out - allowing Josh Brown to slot over a 43-yard field goal to win it, delivering the Bengals to the post-season, and the Steelers to the naughty list.

And all of this even ignores that somewhere between Greg Warren, Drew Butler and Suisham, the special teams unit botched a 24-yard field goal when the score was 7-0 Bengals. Add on to that the fact that on 28 first down plays, Haley elected only to pass ten times. Hardly a balanced attack, especially when averaging only 3.1 yards-per-carry AND that a first down or touchdown was had when a set of downs started with a pass play on seven of those ten occasions. Todd Haley seems to be using only a couple of pages from the playbook. Perhaps Roethlisberger had a point?

In his post-game presser, Tomlin admitted that the team hadn't executed as well as he would have liked and that he knows that saying so 'sounds like a broken record'. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if you keep losing due to poor execution, then isn't it up to the coaching staff to do something about it? If, as he says, the coaches take full responsibility for it, then it's time to change the record, Mike.

And on that happy note: Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Getting Back To It

Right, time to get this restarted. Plenty has happened in the world of Pittsburgh pro-sports since my last post in late 2010. The Penguins have looked good in the regular season, then embarrassed themselves in back-to-back first round exits in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Steelers have appeared in - and lost, sadly - the Superbowl, then got Tebowed last year in the Wild-Card round. And the Pirates...well the Pirates have tortured their beleaguered fanbase by looking as if they were finally going to end all the losing before blowing up spectacularly in the run in two years in a row to drop below .500 at season's end. Deflating.

Anyhow, crucially, none of them has won anything since I canned the blog. Thus, there must be a correlation between the two things, no?* Time to get writing again and time for Pittsburgh to return as City of Champions.

*Somewhere, someone is working on an advanced Sabermetric measure to prove this...