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July 18, 2013
Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, and the Pirates Approach to Building a Bullen
The Pirates blueprint to building the bullpen that has become one of baseball’s best is no longer a guarded secret on the North Shore. While Neil Huntington was away at the All-Star break, an anonymous source who’s not generally much of a talker handed over the plan of how the Pirates did it in five easy steps that will leave the rest of baseball shaking their heads.
1. Trade your best reliever
It seemed genius, and it’s worked out just that way. With a 2.78 ERA, the Pirates’ bullpen ranks second to only the Braves’, who deserve a lot of kudos themselves for how they’ve patched a very strong one together despite the losses of two-thirds of the O’VentBrel trio that had them rolling a couple years back.
But thanks to their starting pitching, Atlanta has had to piece together only 264 1/3 innings, while the Pirates have had to go a brutal 329 2/3 in 93 games (11 outs per game). Only the Blue Jays, who have endured miserable injuries and spot starts left and right, have required more relief.
And this week in New York, the Pirates’ “Shark Tank” was well and justly represented.
The stories of All-Stars Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon are the stories of the Pirates bullpen and the Pirates season. But the stories of how they got to New York—one a journeyman who suffered a debilitating injury as a 30-something and one a castoff from a terrible Red Sox team using the Pirates to “upgrade”—are very different.
Grilli’s story is one of tweaking, the gradual improving of a simple repertoire that survived a 2010 leg trauma in okay shape. Melancon’s career has been jerky, with a couple of lows, a couple of highs, some major trades and most importantly from a baseball sense, the complete overhaul of a repertoire.
They sat on opposite sides of the room on All-Star Game workout day, Grilli drawing a much bigger crowd. Closers always do, he acknowledged. He’s the human interest story, too. From a baseball standpoint, though, his was the little story.
“I always knew I had this in me,” Grilli said, and that’s very much believable.
His story is fairly well told: 2010 Indians. A running drill. A torn quad tendon and ruptured miscellaneous in his knee. A lost season. A hookup with newly-minted agent Gary Sheffield. A tryout with the Phillies. A fateful release.
And now it’s been two very good and one going-on-great season for the Pirates.
In 2009, Grilli had a 4.78 ERA for the Rangers and in the more important peripherals was walking a dangerous 4.8 batters per 9 and striking out 9.2 per 9. In 2013, he sits at 1.99 with only 2.0 walks per 9 to go with a ridiculous 13.9 strikeouts per 9. He’s striking out 42 percent of the righties he’s faced and 38 percent of the lefties.
“I think everybody's making a lot of it—'Wow, you've gone from this journeyman mentality to now I'm a successful closer,'” Grilli said. “I've tweaked a little bit, not a total changeover.”
And he’s right. Just look at his pitch breakdowns from 2009 pre-injury to 2013, available at his Brooks Baseball page.
The changeup essentially disappeared from the repertoire in his comeback year of 2011, and it was an afterthought even before that. He started throwing slightly harder in his second year back, though he said he was already at 95 in a short burst at his workout for scouts after the knee reconstruction. He also started getting more movement on the slider. Beyond that, the breakdown is pretty simple. He says it’s just been minor mechanical tweaks that have him throwing more pitches for strikes.
“Through what I've been through, through getting older, your body changes and I'm so [attuned] to how my body feels, injuries or not, I've tweaked some things here and there in my delivery—not a ton, but enough to make it more efficient and more effective,” Grilli said.
Melancon, on the other hand, needed a new pitch, but that’s an old story. He actually got it three teams ago. It’s just taken a little time to kick in.
Already a hard-throwing closer at the University of Arizona, Melancon picked up the cut fastball in his time with the Yankees, who know a little bit about closers throwing cutters. The source, however, was not Mariano Rivera—the man to whom Melancon was one of several casually mentioned heirs apparent over the years.
“I think Mariano was holding back a little bit on teaching me how to throw a cutter, and not me in specific,” Melancon said with a smile after driving the six-plus hours from Pittsburgh to be teammates with Rivera at the All-Star Game.
He actually credited Billy Connors, the long-time Yankees pitching guru of varying titles, with establishing the proper grip for him.
“He's taught quite a few people,” Melancon said. “He's such a great person, but a great pitching guy … so I took to him a lot and paid attention and he showed me how to hold the cutter. I just played with it a long time.”
It did develop slowly. Melancon didn’t even use it in game action for the first time until he was a member of the Houston Astros in 2011, with a different sort of mentor giving him the confidence to break it out for the first time in an early-season game in Cincinnati.
“When I got to Houston, Brandon Lyon really worked with me and played catch with me and showed me the kind of spin that I wanted, and that was a big help,” Melancon said.
Since then, his percentage of cutters has skyrocketed.
The cutter has clearly helped his repertoire as it has become the focus. The four-seamer was still the plurality in his miserable time in Boston last year between his involvement in other big trades involving Jed Lowrie and Joel Hanrahan. While he was throwing it in the depths of his struggles in Boston, he didn’t really commit to it until the second half and has been throwing it for fewer balls this year (28.7 percent vs. 33.5 percent) as he’s used it over three quarters of the time.
“I'm really locating a lot better,” Melancon said. “I got a lot of help this year in spring training—sometimes when you get to the big leagues, people expect you and think you know everything and that's not always the case.”
Sometimes it takes years to develop.
If the Pirates bullpen is in any way responsible for a second-half letdown, then so it goes. They've been taxed beyond belief, and bullpen success is flimsy at it is at normal usage rates.
All signs point to regression to some degree from Friday through season’s end; they just have to hope they’ve built up enough of a lead.
But this first half hasn't been all magic by any means. At the back end of the bullpen and now at the All-Star week, it’s been good evaluators willing to see past some non-fatal flaws and a pair of pitchers who have been able to make changes big and small to revive their careers. Not exactly sorcery.