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Mark Melancon's success stems from his ability to focus
It's almost unheard of for any pitcher to have the kind of success Mark Melancon had in 2008 in what essentially was his first professional season, especially for it also being his first year coming back from Tommy John surgery.
With makeup off the charts and a competitive drive that is unrivaled, conquering such huge hurdles instantly didn't come as a surprise to many who are well aware of his uncanny ability to focus and cognizant of his tireless work ethic.
Those are traits he says were instilled in him at a very early age while growing up in Colorado and he believes it is just part of his strong upbringing.
"It definitely comes from my parents," he said quickly. "We're a blue collar family and you make sure you appreciate everything you have, you don't take anything for granted. Anything we own we're very thankful for - my entire family is like that. I think a lot of people take things for granted."
Taking things for granted, however, has become commonplace in the world of sports, that is until an injury quickly opens one's eyes.
Whispers of potential surgery clouded his final year at the University of Arizona even though he had established himself as one of the elite closers in college baseball, and it caused what many had deemed a potential first round pick to fall all the way down to the Yankees in the 9th round of the draft.
"On draft day I did have that bad outlook on things, that disbelief on how I slipped because I felt I was as good as some of the first rounders," Melancon said of being drafted in 2006.
"I had played with some of those guys and against some of those guys. I knew what they had. I was just going back and forth with myself, and I didn't see where it added up."
He says he quickly came to grips with the fact his sore elbow was the sole factor in his declining draft status over two years ago and in hindsight he's thankful draft day played out the way it did.
"Honestly, God has a plan," he said. "I believe that and it definitely did. There isn't any other team I'd rather be with and if I could back now and change anything, I wouldn't even do it. Everything that has happened so far, I wouldn't change a thing."
Succumbing to Tommy John surgery just 13 innings into his professional career [including a little more than five innings in the Hawaiian Winter League in 2006], as odd as it may seem, Melancon was thankful for that as well.
"As soon as I found I had to have surgery - I remember the moment when Dr. Andrews told me that I needed to have Tommy John surgery - my first thought was 'yes, thank you'," Melancon recounted. "For so long, for a period of about five months, I didn't know exactly what was wrong.
"I felt some people were really starting to question if I was hurt. Even Dr. Andrews when I went to see him he said I didn't need surgery [initially]. I said to him 'I'm not in here because I want to be, I didn't come all this way to make something up. I know I'm hurt'. After three or four MRI's he said 'yeah, you sure do, you need surgery'."
Most pitchers who befall an injury serious enough to require Tommy John surgery have difficulty dealing with the news and start to question their future. Not Melancon.
"After I found out, I knew what was ahead of me. I knew that I was going to have to take a year off but the surgery fell in a perfect time where I would only miss one season and that I had an offseason to extend that one season.
"So I had 16 months where I was only going to miss one season. It all worked out and obviously I did okay this year, and I don't think I skipped anything."
Skipping steps certainly isn't a habit for Melancon. In fact, in an attempt to make the best use of his time rehabbing his way back from surgery, he asked permission from the Yankees to rehab away from the Yankees minor league complex so he could go back to the University of Arizona and complete his college degree.
"For the first three or four months I was with a trainer in Arizona who I actually lived with," Melancon described his own personal rehab. "It was a full-out rehab. I was immersed in rehab and that's why it was great.
"We would plan two weeks ahead, we knew what we were going to do two weeks in advance everyday, down to every exercise. It was planned out.
"It was the ideal rehab situation and that's because we made it that way. We were good and we knew what we were going to do, we had a plan and we worked that plan."
Part of that plan was completing the 21 hours [credits] he needed to complete his degree, so all he did for the following few months was attend class, complete homework and take tests, and work arduously on building up his arm strength.
"It's a lot easier to do school when you don't have practice and games. I just went to school and rehabbed. It was nice. It didn't get old because most of those guys that rehab are so bored.
"The biggest thing I wanted to stay away from was, once you get bored it's a snowball effect. It's like being a couch potato, when you sit there you don't want to get up and the longer you sit the more you don't want to get up.
"I didn't want to fall into that rut. I knew the more I had to do the more I could accomplish and sure enough, that's how it worked out."
It turned out he had one of the best seasons a pitcher has had returning from Tommy John surgery. He went a combined 8-1 with a 2.27 ERA over three minor league levels in his first full season of professional baseball and made it all the way to Triple-A -- and he did it rehabbing on his own, without the constant nudging of the team behind him.
"We really liked him out of the draft," said Mark Newman, Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations. "We knew it was going to be a year of rehab. There are no more diligent rehabbers than Mark Melancon. He's as good as anybody we've ever had here.
"Melancon went right into the Florida State League this year, then the Eastern League and then International League. That's more than we could have hoped for. I expected A-ball and Double-A. I didn't expect Triple-A."
Showing great commitment to his rehab and then ascending three minor league levels in his first full professional season were remarkable feats, but it was the way in which he tackled each level that continually turned heads.
"Melancon had a tremendous year, his first full year coming off of Tommy John surgery and also his first full year of professional baseball," added Yankees minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras. "He succeeded at every level and he's learned at every level. He's a kid who knows what he wants and he works at it.
"He didn't have a changeup going to the Dominican [Instructs] last year and so he worked on his changeup. He could probably strike out a lot more guys if he wanted to just using his fastball and curveball, but he developed his changeup and that he did."
Melancon says his entire approach to his rehab and then his first season was to focus all of his attention on the finer points of his game and not worry so much about becoming a stat compiler.
"One of the biggest things was changing some mechanical things, just some small things that nobody else would notice," he said.
"And working with different coaches - it's always good to learn from different people because somebody might throw ten things at you but only one might stick, but if you do that with ten different people you've got ten different things, ten different approaches, and just different ways to learn from people and take things."
In a sports era where athletes constantly complain about having to learn different systems under different coaches each year, and sometimes even citing them as reasons for their own lackluster performances, Melancon takes an entirely different approach.
"I pride myself on being open to different ideas," he exclaimed. "If it doesn't work for me I throw it out the door, but I don't see why there's any harm in listening to somebody. It can't hurt you.
"I got to work with a lot of different coaches. Just simple things like different grips and different moves, whatever. In baseball not every thing works for one person so you've got to get different resources and use those resources. The rehab process allowed me to do that."
Leaving no stone uncovered and making sure he could soak every ounce of information out of anybody willing to teach him, Melancon, who had already boasted a great power fastball-power curveball combination, knew that the development of his changeup was going to be a major key in his big league ascension .
"My changeup helped a lot," he admitted. "I noticed a huge improvement with my changeup right when I got to Double-A, that's when my changeup started coming along. I noticed hitters couldn't pick a 50-50 chance of sitting on a fastball or curveball, they had to think about that changeup too."
Avoiding the temptation of trying to impress coaches and team officials by going to his better pitches, he innately understood the wisdom of focusing the majority of his attention on turning his weaknesses into strengths.
"It was his command and the development of his changeup," Newman listed as the biggest surprises stuff-wise. "He always had a quality breaking ball and velocity. He threw strikes and the changeup really emerged as a factor for him, so he's a three-pitch setup guy whose got different ways to get you out with quality stuff and big-time makeup. We feel good about him."
All discussions of Mark Melancon, both as a pitching prospect and as a person, begin and end with his makeup. A big part of who he is mentally is how he can steadfastly focus on both immediate and long-term goals with such intensity.
"The sports psychologist would tell me make sure you have that tunnel vision, that you don't let outside sources kind of stray you away," said Melancon. "He wasn't talking to me specifically. We were all going over some stuff on why people don't make it and how certain things distract people, just stay focused. It was a fun conversation and I took a lot from that."
His tunnel vision not only helped him through his rehab and serves as a major tool in working towards achieving his ultimate goal of succeeding at the big league level, but it helps him each and every time out on the mound.
"I missed being on the mound," he remembered during his rehab days. "You put all of this work in, and even now with the season over, you just want to be on the mound.
"Being there at 7 o'clock at night and being a reliever who has to sit through most of the game, once you get on the mound you're like 'this is what I've been waiting for'. It's one of the coolest feelings.
"I remember when I was a quarterback or even playing basketball, pitching more than anything is - you're standing there 60 feet 6 inches away and you hear nothing no matter how many fans are there, you see nothing except the catcher's glove and everything's completely silent, and it's like you have tunnel vision.
"You look straight at the glove and it's such a cool feeling, you can't experience that anywhere else unless you're deep into competition like that."
His zen-like focus on the mound is the reason why he has such good command of all of his pitches and why he is such a weapon out of the bullpen.
"Mark was great from the first time he took the mound for us until he left and went to Scranton," said Trenton catcher P.J. Pilittere. "He was unbelievable for us.
"We were under the impression he was going to be a short-inning reliever but we tried to make him that one-inning guy early on and he'd throw seven pitches in just one inning."
One of Melancon's objectives this past season coming off of Tommy John surgery was to build up arm strength. The problem, however, was his ability to throw strikes and pound the zone with sinkers and changeups had opposing batters frequently getting themselves out too early, and he would rarely ever reach his pitch count.
"He throws so many strikes early, as soon as he gets out of the pen he's throwing strike one that he'd get through a three-inning stint with maybe 30 pitches," Pilittere continued. "It was pretty impressive for me for a guy in his first full minor league season to have such a grasp and do as well and succeed as much as he did."
Pilittere knows a thing or two about success. A collegiate champion with Cal State Fullerton, he has since added three more rings at the minor league level [two with Trenton in 2007 and 2008, one with Staten Island in 2005], and he sees something special in Melancon.
"I'll say since I've been with the Yankees it's hard to say anybody has been more efficient," he said of Melancon. "We've had some great guys throughout the organization and Mark really stood out to me because of the efficiency.
"He came immediately out of the bullpen and threw strike one. He's throwing strikes, he's attacking hitters, and you can just see it, you can see when hitters step in the box that they're already uncomfortable.
"It came down to him being able to throw strikes and get ahead of guys, and he made it pretty easy for himself.
"It's not just him throwing strikes either, he's got plus command of three pitches as well and they're all really good. He's got that mid-90's fastball with a really nice curveball and a changeup that kind of came out of nowhere for him this year."
Lost in his quick innings and hidden behind the less than one strikeout per inning this past season is the fact Melancon has plus stuff across the board.
"He's not a two-pitch pitcher, he's a three-pitch pitcher with both fastballs too," said Contreras. "He's got a power sinker and he's got a power fastball he can get to the mid-90's. He's capable of doing some things. Of course the presence he takes on the mound is tremendous, and his work ethic is awesome.
"He goes and uses the strike zone. He could have struck out more guys if he wanted to, but it would require more pitches. He would get guys out on a sinker with his first pitch, he would get guys out with a changeup out in front, so he would get out there and pitch a couple of innings in 17-25 pitches instead of throwing 30-35 pitches and striking out five or six guys."
Despite living in a highlight-reel era of baseball, one in which nearly every player seeks to pad their own numbers, Melancon is a bit of a throwback player where the team's success is more important than his own numbers.
"It comes down to winning and losing," Melancon said adamantly. "That's why I don't like looking at stats. People are so wrapped up in stats but the bottom line is winning. However you do that, it doesn't matter."
Contreras and Pilittere take his efficiency one step further. They believe that just one season into his professional career he already knows the inherent value of economizing his pitches in order to be available more often.
"Mark could change his game and become more of a strikeout pitcher if he wanted to," Pilittere opined. "He certainly has the stuff to do that but he grasps pitching and the aspects of the game so much, and being a bullpen guy being able to be used multiple days a week as opposed to just once or twice, that he can mix up his pitches and get guys out with less pitches and it'll help him on the long-run."
"The kid is so smart," Contreras added. "He's a bright guy, he's learning the pitches and he sees what it takes to get guys out without having to strike out anybody.
"If there's a place in an inning where he has to strike somebody out, he's able to do that, but he's also smart enough to save some bullets so he can pitch the next day or maybe even three days in a row because he doesn't overuse his pitches."
Even with barely 100 professional innings under his belt [101.2 innings to be exact] it appears nothing can stop Melancon from making a significant impact with the New York Yankees in the very near future.
""He's another plus pitcher for us. I think he is a tremendous prospect in the organization: a strike-thrower with a power fastball, power breaking-ball, and a power changeup," said Scranton pitching coach Rafael Chavez. "He's got three plus pitches, he has the makeup that is off the charts, and is a real hard worker. You name it, he has it."
Melancon has his immediate sights set on the Bronx and with a track history of his tunnel vision not letting him down, he believes it won't be long before he is a fixture in the Yankee bullpen after tasting success in his first professional season.
"It's even stronger now," said Melancon. "The surgery is behind me, my arm problems are behind me, I've had some experience, and I feel it's just right around the corner. Just that hint of success makes you want to work that much harder.
"I see what those guys are doing and I definitely know I can do that. My goal is to open up with the big league club."