Here’s a version of the feature you’ll see on Mark Melancon in this week’s Hunterdon County Democrat. It’s been edited a bit to make it suck slightly less…
They say he might be the next Joba Chamberlain.
But nobody — Joba included — has a curveball like the one Trenton Thunder reliever Mark Melancon has.
You could argue that no player in the 15-year history of the Thunder has received more hype and media attention who has less professional experience than Melancon — he had pitched only 7.2 innings for short season single-A Staten Island in 2006 before undergoing Tommy John Surgery.
But once you’ve seen him, it’s not hard to see why.
The 23-year-old righty uses a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball and is also working on developing a changeup.
But all anyone wants to talk about is what’s clearly the best pitch in the reliever’s repertoire.
“He’s got a nice hard curveball,” said Thunder pitching coach Scott Aldred.
“It’s 80-81 miles per hour, and when you can throw a curveball at that speed, that’s where some guys throw their sliders at.”
When asked what he attributed the success of his out pitch to, Melancon seemed to agree with Aldred’s assessment on pitch speed.
“When my curveball’s not as good, it’s because my arm speed isn’t there,” he said.
“I tell myself to throw it hard, and mimic a fastball arm speed.”
Even Yankees pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras, not easily impressed, found himself marveling at what the former University of Arizona closer is able to do with his breaking ball.
“He’s got a nasty curveball,” admitted Contreras.
“There might be someone else who does it and throws similar to him and his arm action, but doesn’t have the snap on his fingers and his wrist to snap off the curveball. But he has it where he throws it really well.”
But the road for Melancon to unleash the best pitch in his arsenal in a professional setting has felt much longer than the three years its taken to get him there.
The Yankees drafted Melancon in the ninth round of 2006, and at the time they were considered to be taking a risk, considering he’d been shut down during his junior year due to elbow problems.
“I knew I’d either go real high, or fall way back because of my arm,” Melancon said.
2006 also marked the beginning of a different era in the history of the Yankees, one where prospects were allowed to develop and eventually given an opportunity at the big league level in pinstripes, instead of just being used as trade bait.
“At first, I thought it might be a slow process of getting to the big leagues,” he said.
“But after I learned a little bit more about it, the Yankees had a different mentality. And you’ve seen that with Joba and Ian (Kennedy) and (Phil) Hughes and some other guys. It’s the perfect situation.”
Melancon would make seven appearances for Staten Island after being drafted, but was removed from his Hawaii Winter Baseball team with what was described at the time as just a sore arm.
But tests revealed more than just soreness, and he would undergo Tommy John surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, sidelining him for the entire 2007 season.
“You go through stages, and every three weeks or so, you progress. Initially, it’s real slow, but after a few weeks you really start moving quickly,” said Melancon about his rehab.
“It was actually a very strenuous rehab as far as working an hour and a half every day on the littlest things, just trying to secure your shoulder and your elbow. But it’s something that strengthens your shoulder enough to where you can come back throwing harder. Fortunately for me, my rehab went really well. I didn’t have any setbacks.”
Melancon started the year in Single-A Tampa, getting valuable innings while having the benefits of pitching in a warmer climate after his surgery.
After 13 appearances, Melancon was finally called up to Trenton, where he made his Double-A debut last Thursday. He allowed one run on two hits in two innings of work, but four of his six outs came via strikeout.
“I was hoping to be up here by this time,” he said.
“I struggled a little bit early in Tampa, but recovered from that. That was just a couple location problems. Other than that, I’ve been pitching OK, and hopefully I can keep getting better.”
His stay in Trenton will likely be a short one, with nobody expecting him to still be here by the All-Star break, no less the rest of the season.
The man they say is the next Joba may just get to join Chamberlain in the Bronx before the season is over.
“I’m thankful for Joba opening the door, him and Ian, proving that those guys can do it,” said Melancon of his fellow relatively inexperienced pitchers who’ve made an impact with the Yankees.
“But that’s fine if they compare me to Joba, because that’s a good thing. He’s doing really well.”
But not even Melancon knows just when the long road that’s taken him to Trenton will lead him to Yankee Stadium.
“Nobody knows,” he said.
“If I pitch well, then I think I could be there pretty soon. But those things are over my head. I just have to go out there and be consistent. If I do that, I feel I have the stuff to be in the big leagues.”
Until then, Mark Melancon remains a guy with big league stuff pitching in Double-A.
But not for long.
Stay tuned for the complete Q&A with Melancon at a later date…
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com