Two experiments produced big results for Jonathan Meloan. A change of grips and a change of roles helped turn the Jacksonville Suns right-hander from a promising starter into an overpowering reliever and MiLB.com's Double-A Relief Pitcher of the Year.
Meloan's heat from the mound helped the Suns dominate the Southern League in the first half as they went 41-29, just one game behind first-place Mississippi. The 6-foot-3 right-hander was nearly unhittable, going 5-2 with a 2.18 ERA and posting 19 saves. Through 45 1/3 innings, the University of Arizona product struck out 70 while walking 18 and holding opponents to a .155 average.
The standard M.O. for most closers is a powerful mid-90s fastball with at least an above-average secondary pitch. Meloan, who already had a top-notch curveball and a solid changeup, found that secondary pitch almost completely by accident while starting for the Arizona Wildcats.
"One day in the bullpen I was there with my pitching coach, Andy Lopez, and I was saying how I saw this guy throw a cutter and wished I could figure out how to throw one myself," Meloan said. "Coach then showed me right there, but I never really used it in a game.
"Later that year when I was in the Cape Cod League, I was still fiddling around with it. During a blowout, I was talking to [catcher] Nick Hundley and told him that I wanted to try throwing it, so we agreed on a sign for it. One inning, I had two strikes on a guy with two outs and Nick called for a fastball in, but I thought he was asking for the cutter. I threw it, struck the guy out to end the inning and Nick says, 'What the hell was that?' I told him that I thought he wanted a cutter, so that's what I threw. He then said that maybe I should be throwing that a little more often."
After collecting back-to-back 10-win seasons with Arizona, the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted the Houston native in the fifth round of the 2005 draft. But they weren't necessarily taking him with the intention of making him a starter.
"We just felt that he had the mentality and the strikeout ability to succeed as a reliever," Marty Reed, the Dodgers' Minor League pitching coordinator, said. "Jon is extremely strong and aggressive on the mound, and a lot of us in the organization felt that he would get to the big leagues faster if he was in the bullpen."
The transition got off to a seamless start. Meloan went 3-1 with a 1.90 ERA and one save during his first full pro season, striking out 91 in 52 innings at three different levels in the Dodgers system. The 2007 season started out similarly when he fanned five in two perfect innings on April 6, but little more than a month later Meloan found himself with a 3.72 ERA and three blown saves in eight chances while his opponents' average crept over the .200 mark for the first time.
Worried that he was going through a dead-arm period, Meloan took every suggestion he could get -- more ice, less heat; More heat, less ice; More throwing, less throwing. Nothing was working until he began a long-toss program in the middle of May. From then on, hardly anyone in the Southern League could touch him.
In a 10-game stretch from May 21 to June 11, Meloan gave up just one hit and three walks in 12 2/3 scoreless innings while collecting 19 strikeouts. Meloan was a perfect 14-for-14 in save situations before his mid-July promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas and gave up three earned runs in the remainder of his time with the Suns.
"I saw him a considerable amount of time in Jacksonville," Reed said. "It seemed like he just kept getting better and better with every game."
Meloan points to his prior experience as a starter and the lessons he's learned since as the reasons he flourished this summer.
"With most relievers, they have just two pitches to work with," Meloan said. "That second pitch might be pretty good, but if it's off, you're at the mercy of the batter with just a fastball. You can't throw any mistakes and you've got to find something else quick.
"If my cutter isn't working, I still have a curve and change, so having all those pitches allows me to be more versatile."
Meloan wouldn't be the first starter who found stardom as a reliever. Look no further than White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, Detroit setup man Joel Zumaya and Yankee phenom Joba Chamberlain. That versatility helped Meloan fulfill the Dodgers' hopes as he made his Major League debut on Sept. 1 at San Diego -- in relief, of course.
Still, Reed won't rule out a return to the rotation for the burly righty, saying that while his best long-term projections are as a reliever, he has the ability and flexibility to become a successful starter.
"I wouldn't rule out him going back [to starting]," Reed said. "There were many times this season where it looked like Jon could have helped out the big club right away. Where a player ends up all depends on the player himself. Jonathan Broxton has the stuff to be a starter, but he's doing well in the 'pen, so why move him? Chad Billingsley is just the reverse.
"If he keeps progressing at this rate, this young man has a very good chance at a roster spot with the Dodgers come Opening Day."