Everybody loves a closer. They stride from the bullpen with strains of a recent heavy metal classic blasting over the stadium loudspeakers, flames and explosions leaping from the videoboards. They lock down the ninth inning, shaking hands with the catcher after a job well done. They get the praise and, eventually, they get the paychecks.
Mark Melancon travelled a strange path before landing in Pittsburgh to be the Pirates 8th inning guy. A former top Yankees prospect who spent two years in Houston before the Astros shipped him to Boston. Melancon struggled during his re-introduction to the American League way of life, earning a demotion to triple-A after four unbelievably bad April outings.
Since coming to the Pirates, Melancon has done nothing but post terrific numbers. So far in 4o innings this year, Melancon has allowed just four walks and four runs all season long. Add in his 40 strikeouts and you end up with a very valuable reliever, one who owns a 0.96 ERA.
Melancon credits better mastery of the cut fastball — a pitch he watched Mariano Rivera throw so well for the Yankees — for much of his success in Pittsburgh. It’s a pitch that stays out of the middle of bats, allowing Melancon to induce more ground balls than ever before while surrendering the home runs at the lowest rate of his career.
Jesse Crain has long been a solid relief pitcher but now, at age 31, Crain is enjoying his finest season as a big leaguer. Like Melancon, Crain changed the way he approaches his job this season, opting for more breaking balls and more swinging strikes to get the job done.
As Dave Cameron showed at Fangraphs earlier this month, Crain’s strikeout rate has grown steadily over the past four seasons. An increased emphasis on strikeouts initially cost Crain as he walked more than 11% of the batters he faced in 2011 and 2012, but 2013 has seen Crain’s walk rate drop to less than 8% of hitters now reach via base on balls.
Allowing fewer base runners agrees with Crain, who currently ranks among the league leaders in ERA (second at 0.52), strikeouts rate (12th at 32.2%), FIP (second at 1.44) and leads all relievers with 2 Wins Above Replacement in just 34 innings.
The White Sox might not be going anywhere in 2013 but Jesse Crain is more than holding down his responsibilities in the bullpen. He also represents a tidy trade chip should any contender need to solidify their relief corps.
Brett Cecil of the Toronto Blue Jays knows all about the ups and downs of life as a big leaguer. Considered a marginal option to even make the team out of Spring Training, Cecil finally kicked the velocity issues that plagued him over the last three seasons and found a home as a lights out late inning reliever.
After rediscovering the missing zip in his fastball, Cecil also realized the value of throwing strikes and is now among the hottest relievers in baseball. Since a rough outing in Boston on May 10th, Brett Cecil has been pretty much unhittable, allowing just two hits and three walks in his last 19.2 innings. No runs allowed, holding hitters to a .034/.081/.034 slash line.
For the month of June, those numbers are even better, as the only base runner to reach against the Jays tall lefty was by intentional walk. 32 batters faced in June, 11 strikeouts, 0 hits, 1 intentional walk.
No pitcher is this good but Cecil has shown what happens when a formerly struggling starter finds his niche in the bullpen. Cecil is able to max out his velocity and limit his pitches to his bread and butter: two types of fastball and curve, mainly – with his slider or changeup deployed much less than his time as a starter.
They might not get all the adulation and attention of their ninth-inning brothers, but the work of Jesse Crain, Mark Melancon, and Brett Cecil is just as crucial to team success. Unsung as they might be, these three stoppers are more than earning their keep.