Attention, baseball players: if you get sent down to the minors, don't panic. Three-time All-Star Mark Melancon will tell you that himself. In fact, a demotion to Triple-A ball may have saved his career.
Melancon, a ninth-round pick in the 2006 MLB Draft, rose through the ranks of the Yankees farm system like a ballplayer should. 2006 was short-season Class A ball. By 2008, he was cruising, going 8-1 with a 2.27 ERA across three levels of Minor League Baseball. And by 2009, he was called up to the show, though he spent that season and the next going between the Majors and the Minors.
Eventually he was traded to the Astros, locking down a role as their primary closer in 2011, saving 20 games and recording a respectable 2.78 ERA. But following a trade to Boston in the 2012 offseason, things went off the rails.
"When you give up six runs and don't get an out, you're going to have a 6.00 (ERA)," Melancon said, laughing with fellow pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith on "The Top Step" podcast. "As a reliever, yeah, that stifled my whole year right there. I think I gave up maybe a grand slam and three or four doubles in one inning."
The inning in question? An April 17, 2012 game between the Red Sox and the Rangers. The Rangers, up 8-2 entering the top of the eighth, embarrassed the Red Sox at Fenway, and the humiliation had only just begun. Melancon was a little bit off in his memory of the inning. Instead, it looked like this (via Baseball Reference):
- Ian Kinsler: Double
- Elvis Andrus: Walk
- Josh Hamilton: Three-Run Home Run
- Adrian Beltre: Solo Home Run
- David Murphy (PH): Walk
- Nelson Cruz: Two-Run Home Run
Ouch. Six runs. No outs. Following that appearance, his fourth of the season, Melancon was sitting on a 49.50 ERA. Can you blame the Sox for sending him down to Triple-A? Melancon certainly can't, and it was that reality crashing down on him that turned his game around.
"I felt fine. Mentally, I felt good. It was just that I wasn't getting outs," Melancon said. "I got sent down to Triple-A and, honestly, that was the best part of my career... back against the wall. Having closed in Houston the year prior, it was really from a high down to a low, and then when I was in the low, I was forced to realize that if I don't do well right now, then I may never get back up to the big leagues and my career is probably over.
"So there was more focus and more dedication and more, you know, grit at that point in time than any time in my career."
Needless to say, his stint with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox was nothing short of pure domination: 21.2 innings pitched, 27 strikeouts, 11 saves, two earned runs and a 0.83 ERA later, and Melancon was back up in the bigs. And though he finished that season with a 6.20 ERA — how could he not, given his 49.50 ERA from earlier on — he had a relatively strong second half.
It was a sign of things to come. Boston traded him to this fourth time in four years, and he settled in with the Pirates right away. He was an All-Star in three of the next four seasons, recording 147 saves with a devastating 1.80 ERA over that span. Now, entering his age-36 season, Melancon is a free agent, but should have no trouble finding a landing spot given his strong 2020 campaign in Atlanta. Should he face any hard times ahead, though, he'll have an important experience to look back on.
"I still think back to that time," Melancon said. "Sitting in Triple-A going, man, this is it. If I don't shine now, it's over."