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Melancon's Cutter


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#1 Hairps

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 03:27 PM

I thought the following from Cherington's post-trade conference call with reporters was interesting (emphasis mine):

"On Mark Melancon: "We really like his stuff and have liked his stuff back to his college days at Arizona and we feel like the second half of the season, he really developed a better feel for his cutter. He's always had a good curveball. He's a really aggressive pitcher. Tough, confident and we think he has the intangibles to compete in the American League East. Just felt he was a really good upgrade to our bullpen."

http://www.boston.co...ton_says_1.html


Adding a legit cutter can have a big impact on a pitcher's future performance, so this got me to digging a little bit more. It turns out he started working on the pitch last off-season:

One of the key’s to Melancon’s success has been a cutter he developed to accommodate his 92 mph fastball, sharp curveball and work-in-progress changeup. The day after the 2010 season ended, Melancon began showing up at Minute Maid Park to work on nothing but the cutter. He spent all of October working on the pitch and phased it into his repertoire in spring.

http://blog.chron.co...os-closer-spot/


If FanGraphs' pitchfx data is to be believed, he actually didn't get around to throwing one in an MLB game until the Astros' 5/6/11 game vs. the Pirates.

A look at TexasLeaguer's data seems to confirm this, and appears to really drive home the resulting change to Melancon's repertoire:

Pre-5/6/11:

4-seam Fastball: 60.4%
Curve: 26.6%
Change-Up: 7.2%
Cutter: n/a

Post-5/6/11:

4-seam Fastball: 40.8%
Cutter: 30%
Curve: 26.4%
Change-Up: 2.7%

http://pitchfx.texas...pitcher/453343/

And how successful was Melancon's foray into cutter-dom? With all due warnings of small sample sizes and potential for bad data...FanGraphs lists Melancon as deriving the 10th most "value" from the cutter among all MLB relievers (even considering the fact that he only threw it for the first time in the last half of the year):

http://www.fangraphs...eam=0&players=0

It's hard to say whether Melancon can consolidate the progress he made last year with the pitch, or whether his reported plans this off-season to work on his changeup might add an additional weapon, but it seems worth watching, and perhaps worth analyzing in more detail before determining if the Sox really did "buy high" on Melancon, or if there are still areas of growth for Melancon as he seeks to become (we hope) an elite relief ace in the AL East.

In any event, I thought it was an interesting throw-away line for Cherington to make.


Edit: spelling

Edited by Hairps, 15 December 2011 - 04:25 PM.


#2 Eric Van


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 04:12 PM

A look at TexasLeaguer's data seems to confirm this, and appears to really drive home the resulting change to Melancon's repetoire:

Pre-5/6/11:

4-seam Fastball: 60.4%
Curve: 26.6%
Change-Up: 7.2%
Cutter: n/a

Post-5/6/11:

4-seam Fastball: 40.8%
Cutter: 30%
Curve: 26.4%
Change-Up: 2.7%

http://pitchfx.texas...pitcher/453343/

Great stuff.

Melancon's K and UBB rates with Houston:

2010: .268, .133
2011 pre-cutter: .185, .092
2011 post-cutter: .229, .059

The improvement in his K and BB rates after he introduced the cutter have a 42% and 36% chance of happening randomly. Even if you combine 2010 and pre-cutter 2011 walk rates and compare to post-cutter it's still 12% ... a strong suggestion of improved command, but not enough to bank on. So we're going to be bedeviled by SSS in trying to figure out whether the pitch has helped him.

Nevertheless, if I have the time I'll try to see if his platoon splits and splits by opposition quality improved once he started throwing it. (Ditto for checking pitch/fx's classification.)

It's possible that his immense Vs34 split has been much better since he introduced it, which would make me feel a lot better about him ... but then you wonder, if that's the case, just how big was that split before he introduced it?

Finally, the big drop in K rate from 2010 to early 2011, even though it has a 24% chance of being random, makes you wonder about splits by times faced batter, so if I do this at all, I'll take a look at that as well.
.

#3 Eric Van


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 05:40 PM

An observation on Melancon with three questions / implications:

He has a below average fastball, in terms of results measured by linear weights. His success comes from his great curve and new, very good cutter.

1) How often do MLB pitchers have sustained excellence with below-average fastballs?

2) Is there a relationship between getting by with your breaking and off-speed pitches instead of the FB, and the Vs34 split? It would seem to make sense; it's the great FB that neutralizes great hitters and it's great breaking balls and off-speed pitches that give subpar hitters extra trouble. I may look into that.

3) On the plus side, according to game theory, if he's getting negative results from the FB and huge positive results from his other two pitches, he's throwing the fastball too often. This is very credible if you think of him and his catcher buying into a "you need to establish the fastball" mindset. While you would not want to reduce the FB and increase the other two pitches all the way to a Nash equilibrium (where you're getting the same results from all of them -- it works in theory but not, I think, in practice if the pitches have very different qualities), fewer FB and more cutters and curves might make him more effective.* So there's some upside. You would expect the cutter to be his best pitch against good hitters, and maybe if he dramatically increases his cutters versus regular fastballs against them, it will help get them out.

*It might also put more strain on the arm of a guy who has a violent delivery and an injury history, though.

#4 curly2

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 06:00 PM

1) How often do MLB pitchers have sustained excellence with below-average fastballs?

I was amazed, even going back to his pre-Red Sox days, how Keith Foulke did so well as a fastball-changeup pitcher with a fastball that topped out around 90.

#5 SoxScout


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 06:11 PM

I was amazed, even going back to his pre-Red Sox days, how Keith Foulke did so well as a fastball-changeup pitcher with a fastball that topped out around 90.


When the data is available for when he was awesome, 2002-04, Foulke's fastball got awesome results though. 11th best for RPs in 2004.

#6 curly2

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 06:22 PM

When the data is available for when he was awesome, 2002-04, Foulke's fastball got awesome results though. 11th best for RPs in 2004.

Oh, I know, he made it work somehow, like when he blew one by Tony Clark to end Game 6. It's just amazing how he did it.

#7 Doctor G

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 06:39 PM

I was amazed, even going back to his pre-Red Sox days, how Keith Foulke did so well as a fastball-changeup pitcher with a fastball that topped out around 90.


Keith Foulke could hit a dime with his fastball. He got an extraordinary amount of called strikes on both corners.

#8 cannonball 1729

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 06:43 PM

1) How often do MLB pitchers have sustained excellence with below-average fastballs?

I was thinking of Akinori Otsuka - he threw pretty much all sliders (during his Ranger days, anyway) and used an 89-90 mph fastball as a show-me pitch. Don't know about others, though.

#9 Carroll Hardy


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 07:22 PM

Foulke had such an amazing short-arm motion, ridiculously obscured release point, unorthodox deep palmball grip, and consistent mechanics. In fact, he didn't even really throw a changeup, it was a mechanically identical, imperceptible fastball variant. And the deep palm grip reduced rotation to such an extent he could drop velocity by 10-12 MPH. I remember him generally at 87-88 with pinpoint control on the black on both sides of the plate, with the palm fastball at about 75.

Johnny from Burger King really didn't know shit about Keith Foulke.

Edited by Carroll Hardy, 15 December 2011 - 07:26 PM.


#10 Sprowl


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 07:22 PM

Hideki Okajima had a slowfastball (86-88 mph) that was successful for three years before running into trouble, because, like Foulke, Oki could throw it wherever he wanted -- usually up and in or beyond the outside edge. He was at his best when he painted with the fastball, then got the batter to chase a split-change.

It's harder to say that Oki "sustained" his success. Instead, he started with a bang, and then declined gradually, and eventually precipitously. Familiarity bred contempt.

I remember him generally at 87-88 with pinpoint control on the black on both sides of the plate, with the palm fastball at about 75.

Yes, those numbers are what I remember as well: Foulke had great velocity separation, and his palm ball had visible slump and fade that made LHB look silly. Foulke's slider was never an out pitch on the same scale as his palm ball, but it was pretty good as well.

#11 Toe Nash

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 09:00 PM

Awesome thread. Observations like these, with the data to back them up, are the reason I read SoSH so religiously.

This makes me much more bullish on Melancon and much less likely his good results in 11 were just due to being in the weakest division (considering his good, but not great numbers in the minors).

#12 judyb

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 09:12 PM

Not sure that's even a weak division for an Astros, Pirates, or Cubs pitcher, you only get 2 of weak offenses with a heavy dose of the Cards, Brewers, and Reds.

#13 Harry Hooper


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 09:24 PM

Can the Sox hire Pedro to tutor Melancon on the change-up this offseason? Would help vs. LHB.

#14 Eric Van


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 10:37 PM

I was thinking of Akinori Otsuka - he threw pretty much all sliders (during his Ranger days, anyway) and used an 89-90 mph fastball as a show-me pitch. Don't know about others, though.

Great call.

I've got my spreadsheet with all the FanGraphs data for every relief pitching season, 30 or more IP, 2002-2011.

There are 877 seasons with FIP- below 90. Of those, 194 (22%) had below average results with their fastball.

(Melancon, however, is not one of them, because BIS apparently classified as fastballs a bunch of pitches that pitch/fx classified as cutters. So BIS has his fastball as a bit better than average, 0.17, while pitch/fx has it as -0.45. Still, even though some of the data in my spreadsheet may be inaccurate, it's still worth looking at ...)

Only one pitcher in this data set has had three straight seasons with a FIP- below 90 and below average fastball results: Akinori Otsuka, 2005-7. FB% by years was 50.6, 34.0, 32.5.

Guys who did it two years in a row:

Chris Hammond '03-'04
Brian Meadows '03-'04
Doug Brocail '04-'05
Kiko Calero '04-'05
Mike DeJean '04-'05
Elmer Dessens '04-'05
Rudy Seanez '04-'05
Francisco Cordero '05-'06
Aaron Fultz '05-'06
Brad Lidge '05-'06
Jeremy Affeldt '07-'08
Sean Green '07-'08
Jason Grilli '08-'09
Trever Miller '08-'09
Tony Pena '08-'09
Joel Hanrahan '09-'10

So it's doable for two years. After that guys either improve their fastballs or suffer a FIP decline. Hanrahan, for instance, had a huge improvement in his FB last year. Cordero was having two off years, and then bounced back in '07. Calero had a plus fastball in '06 and his best year for FIP, than had a bad fastball and 101 FIP- in '07.

In contrast, there are many guys with long streaks of FIP- < 90, wFB/C > 0. Rivera 7 straight seasons, Papelbon 6 straight, and so on. In contrast to the 1 Otsuka streak of 3 straight seasons with FIP- < 90, wFB/C < 0, there have been 106 streaks of 3 straight seasons with wFB/C > 0, by 50 different pitchers.

So common sense prevails: you really have to have positive results from your FB if you're going to have sustained success as a reliever.

#15 absintheofmalaise


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 11:20 PM

Mike Fast, one of the pitch f/x gurus, was saying how off the calibration is at Minute Maid Park and he suggested that it might be better to use the road data to get a truer idea about his pitches.

#16 SumnerH


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Posted 16 December 2011 - 01:27 AM

An observation on Melancon with three questions / implications:

He has a below average fastball, in terms of results measured by linear weights. His success comes from his great curve and new, very good cutter.

1) How often do MLB pitchers have sustained excellence with below-average fastballs?


It's obviously a weird corner case, but Wakefield was at minimum very effective for years without a great fastball stuff-wise. Even if his fastball has been successful results-wise, it's clearly not because it's a great pitch on its own. And that thinking probably carries through to the Foulke/Okajima cases--it's tough to evaluate a pitch solely based on its results, when those results probably depend on having other great pitches or skills to back it up.

I guess the point as far as Melancon is concerned is that it's possible that even with an crappy "stuff" fastball that got clobbered for terrible results in the past, adding a slick cutter could serve to make the same "stuff" fastball a more effective pitch as far as its results. Do you have any splits on the linear weights results of the fastball before and after he introduced the cutter into his repertoire?

(This theory is highly speculative and it's entirely possible that there's nothing to it)

Edited by SumnerH, 16 December 2011 - 01:28 AM.


#17 Eric Van


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Posted 16 December 2011 - 02:00 AM

It's obviously a weird corner case, but Wakefield was at minimum very effective for years without a great fastball stuff-wise. Even if his fastball has been successful results-wise, it's clearly not because it's a great pitch on its own. And that thinking probably carries through to the Foulke/Okajima cases--it's tough to evaluate a pitch solely based on its results, when those results probably depend on having other great pitches or skills to back it up.

I guess the point as far as Melancon is concerned is that it's possible that even with an crappy "stuff" fastball that got clobbered for terrible results in the past, adding a slick cutter could serve to make the same "stuff" fastball a more effective pitch as far as its results. Do you have any splits on the linear weights results of the fastball before and after he introduced the cutter into his repertoire?

(This theory is highly speculative and it's entirely possible that there's nothing to it)

I'm going to try to find the time to do a season-long pitch/fx analysis.

What you're suggesting here is very much like what I said in the main trade thread --game theory says he should throw the FB less. Wakefield in fact had incredible results with what was obviously an objectively terrible fastball, because he threw it so rarely and yet not all that predictably; people were always looking knuckler with him. If Melancon can't improve his FB raw quality he should be able to improve its results-quality by reducing its use towards the point where it would be almost a surprise pitch. And as you say, that may have started happening at some point after he introduced the cutter and made that alteration in approach possible.