Mark Melancon Should Not Be Used in Tie Games. He Excels in All Other Situations.

Mark Melancon

Mark Melancon Should Not Be Used in Tie Games

Arizona Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly had put up a valiant effort, but so did his counterpart. When the tie game headed into the ninth, closer Mark Melancon entered the game in a non-closer situation. It did not go well. The Diamondbacks fell into an insurmountable hole and lost the game.

This was May 11 against the Miami Marlins. After the game, this reporter — based solely on observations and without looking at any stats — spoke up in the postgame press conference with manager Torey Lovullo. “It seems that Mark pitches better with a lead than in a tie game,” he observed. “Do you have any theories on that one?”

“I don’t know,” Lovullo replied. “I’ve thought about that. I know that he’s closed out some games and we’ve won games and in tie games, he hasn’t managed it as well. He’s gotten within one out, a couple of times, from getting through the inning. We’ve got to remember that. If we’re crisp and turned a double play on the Sanchez ball, we’re not even having this conversation.”

Lovullo added, “There’s no explanation for me. He’s a competitor, and he’s gonna go out there and get it done. I’ll take the bet each night, if we get a runner on and he’s got two outs, two strikes, he’s got two outs on that hitter to get out of the inning. I’ll take my chances on those odds. He’s gonna find a way to get it done.”

The Follow-up

Another reporter — one who’s covered baseball since the 70s — followed up. “Whether it’s Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera, it doesn’t matter how good the closer you are. You put them in a tie situation, and psychologically, it’s a completely different thing.”

Lovullo replied, “Yeah, it’s a bit of a grind. I’ve had conversations with him, though. He’s prepared for that. But yeah, I know that they want the save. They hunt the save. That’s what closers do.”

The veteran replied, “It’s a mentality thing.”

Lovullo countered, “He’s a team player. That’s his inning in that situation, and he knows it.”

Déjà Vu

Three days later, Lovullo took the bet again. One night after Melancon protected a one-run lead with an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 save, he entered a tie game against the Chicago Cubs. A single sandwiched between two walks loaded the bases for Yan Gomes, whose single gave the Cubs a 2–1 lead. Melancon left the game without recording an out. Two of his bequeathed runners also scored, giving the Cubs a 4–1 lead. The Diamondbacks scored one in the bottom of the ninth, making the final score 4–2.

As Melancon was warming up, this reporter looked at his splits. At the time, Melancon’s opponent batting average with the lead was .237. In tie games, it was .500. He mentioned it to the veteran reporter, who was sitting nearby. The veteran said he’d ask about it.

Postgame

After the game, the veteran did exactly that. He started by pointing out that this was the third time Melancon had pitched in four nights. Lovullo said, “We discussed it and felt very strongly that he was going to go out and be able to execute. And he said he was ready to go. We all talked about it several times before in the game, and the decision was made that he was going to be able to go out there.”

The veteran asked his next question. “We talked about it a little bit the other day about the tie game, lead, and stuff. You must know his batting average in tie games against him is .500. With a lead, it’s .237. He’s saved seven out of eight games. So there’s obviously a difference here. What he’s doing in that situation?”

Lovullo responded, “For sure. We picked up on that. And the bottom line is, you got to execute at a higher level, no matter what. If it’s a tie game or not, he’s got to command the cutter. I know that it was a eight- or nine-pitch at-bat from Contreras, who did a great job of getting on, but he’s got to execute a little bit better with command of his cutter. And that’s what we’re gonna talk to him about.”

Situational Splits

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Two and a half months later, the tie game split has held steady. On May 14, he had entered four tie games. The struggles could have been a temporary slump at that point. But now he’s entered 20, and the results are slightly worse. Sunday against the Atlanta Braves, Melancon took the mound in the ninth with the game scoreless. The leadoff hitter grounded to short, but the next two hitters singled and doubled, respectively, to give the Braves a 1–0 walkoff victory.

This is not a slump — it’s a season-long trend. In all situations where the score was tied when he threw the pitch, Melancon’s opponents are slashing .514/.581/.649 (19-for-37) with five doubles, six walks, three strikeouts, ten runs scored, and a .531 wOBA. For wOBA context, the career leader — Babe Ruth — had a wOBA of .513. In a single-season context, .531 is six points shy of Barry Bonds in 2001. Clearly, tie games are not Melancon’s bag this season.

However, in all other scenarios, Melancon has pitched extremely well. When the score is not tied, Melancon’s opponents are slashing .222/.270/.287 (24-for-108) with one double, two home runs, six walks, 23 strikeouts, and a .247 wOBA.

Score Differential When Entering the Game

This extends to what the score was when Melancon entered the game. (Remember, if Melancon was pitching at home, once he surrendered the lead, he still had to get out of the inning. At that point, he was pitching while behind. That is why the following numbers will be different from the tie-game stat lines.) He has entered a tie game 12 times — nine times in the ninth, and thrice in the tenth. He surrendered at least one run — earned or unearned — in nine of those, a 25% Scoreless Outing Percentage. For context, the NL Average is around 68% for 2022.

The Diamondbacks’ record in those games is 3–9; Melancon’s record in those is 2–7. He has allowed 11 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings with seven strikeouts, seven walks, one home run, and a 2.893 WHIP. Furthermore, opponents are slashing .426/.500/.596 (20-for-47) in these situations, with five doubles and a .469 wOBA.

In contrast, for the 28 games — 23 with a lead, five while behind — where there was a leader when Melancon entered, his pitching line and record are what one would expect from one of the top closers in the league. (Remember, Melancon led the National League in saves in 2021.) His record in these games is 1–2, with both losses being blown save-losses. He has allowed eight earned runs in 25 2/3 innings with 19 strikeouts, five walks, one home run, and a 1.091 WHIP. He posted a scoreless outing in 22 of these appearances, making a 78.6% ScOtg%. In addition, he converted 14 of 16 save opportunities. Opponents in these 28 games slashed .235/.279/.276 with a double and a .251 wOBA. In Win Probablity Added (WPA), Melancon is -1.990 when entering a tie game; he is +0.117 in all other scenarios.

Mark Melancon vs. Hall of Fame Closers

This trend is not specific to Melancon. As the veteran reporter mentioned in the press conferences, even Hall of Fame closers have this trait, although the differences haven’t been as stark as they have been for Melancon in 2022.

Non-ties

Ties

Name BA OBP SLG wOBA BA OBP SLG wOBA
Josh Hader (Career) .144 .231 .277 .230 .165 .278 .395 .297
Mariano Rivera (HOF) .204 .251 .283 .238 .248 .309 .343 .280
Mark Melancon (2022) .222 .270 .287 .247 .514 .581 .649 .531
Trevor Hoffman (HOF) .206 .255 .340 .259 .232 .302 .349 .276
Dennis Eckersley (HOF) .230 .256 .355 .264 .213 .270 .364 .269
Rollie Fingers (HOF) .226 .275 .327 .264 .266 .332 .384 .305
Lee Smith (HOF) .232 .292 .331 .274 .258 .344 .384 .310
Dennis Eckersley began his career as a starter. In the middle of the 1987 season, he became a full-time closer.
His stats are from 1988 through the end of his career. Other retired pitcher stats are for their career.

 

Mark Melancon Should Close and Nothing Else

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The role of “closer” is to enter a game late and maintain a lead, especially in a close game. Closers usually enter in the ninth, although sometimes the closer will come in to get the team out of a runners-on-base jam in the eighth. On the road, they’ll also enter in the bottom of the last inning of an extra-inning game. Another common use of a closer is to keep a team from falling further behind when they are down but still close enough to realistically come back.

Melancon came to the team to close. When used in closer situations, Melancon has excelled. When not, he has struggled. The brain trust of the Diamondbacks has used splits to put hitters in situations where they have the greatest chance of success. That is why Carson Kelly — who dominates left-handed pitching — tends to bat leadoff against lefties despite his slow footspeed. Against righties, he bats much farther down in the order. That is also why the recently departed David Peralta sat against lefties but played regularly against righties. It is also why Jordan Luplow plays so often against left-handed pitchers.

Maximize Potential of Success

The list goes on. Yet the Diamondbacks do not appear to be using pitching splits to maximize success for its relievers. Noe Ramirez and Kyle Nelson have the best opponent batting numbers in tie games for righties and lefties, respectively. (Author’s Note: Keynan Middleton has retired every batter he’s faced in these scenarios; however, he’s only faced four hitters.) Ramirez’s opponents are slashing .138/.257/.241 (4-for-35) with three doubles, four walks, 10 strikeouts, a hit batsman, a sacrifice fly, and a .219 wOBA. Nelson’s opponents are slashing .133/.316/.200 with a double, three walks, four strikeouts, a hit batsman, and a .260 wOBA in the same scenario.

There are other factors involved, yes, but based solely on these numbers, Ramirez and Nelson should be the go-to relievers in tie games. Melancon should not. It will set both the team and Melancon up for the greatest chance of success.

Main Photo:

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Players/managers mentioned:

Mark Melancon, Merrill Kelly, Torey Lovullo, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Yan Gomes, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Josh Hader, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Lee Smith, Carson Kelly, David Peralta, Jordan Luplow, Noe Ramirez, Kyle Nelson, Keynan Middleton