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Mark Melancon wasn’t bad this year

But not bad isn’t the same as good

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

STAT LINE: 41 G, 39 IP, 31 K, 14 BB, 3.23 ERA, 3.39 FIP

Mark Melancon was fine this year.

His ERA was 3.23 (121 ERA+) and his FIP was 3.39. Those aren’t great numbers, but they do generally make him a good reliever to have on a baseball team. The Giants, like any team, could always use more good relievers. Hooray for good relievers! Hooray for Mark Melancon!

Right?

Hello?

You’re all glaring at me, aren’t you? I can feel it through the screen.

In 2018, Melancon was better than in 2017, but he still didn’t live up to the fanbase’s expectations. Some of those expectations are based on how he performed in the four years before coming to San Francisco, and some of them are based on his contract, but either way, it wasn’t pretty.

Now, there is one big extenuating factor here: Mark Melancon came back from an injury that had at least three members of the MCC staff — Bryan, Sami, and me — all confidently asserting around the end of Spring Training that he would never throw a pitch again. In September of 2017, he had surgery and afterwards was told that his pronator muscle was grey from lack of oxygen, “literally dying off.” In April of this year, he had stem cells injected into the same muscle to bring it back.

He was back in the majors pitching on June 3. He alternated good and bad months (2.61 ERA in June, 4.82 in July, 1.00 in August, 4.35 in September), but honestly, it really is impressive how he came back from that injury, a severe and rare injury, and pitched like a major leaguer. So again I say: hooray for Mark Melancon!

You’re all still glaring at me. It’s the contract, isn’t it?

ROLE ON THE 2018 TEAM: Not the closer. He was signed to be the closer, he spent most of 2017 as the closer with lackluster results, and when he came back from injury this year, the team was like, “Uh, Hunter Strickland’s doing just fine, thanks.” When Strickland lost a fight to that clubhouse door in a dark alley, they tried Sam Dyson for a week, and after Dyson blew a couple of saves, they settled on Will Smith, who had the season of his life and never relinquished the role. Melancon flitted between being a late inning reliever and a middle inning reliever, but he was never The Guy in the 9th inning like he was expected to be.

ROLE ON THE 2019 TEAM: Also not the closer. He’s currently clearly behind Will Smith for closer, probably Tony Watson too, and maybe even Reyes Moronta. If they all founder and Melancon has a nice year, then he might get his old job back. If Melancon is sensational like he was with the Pirates, then he’ll probably just have Smith to get through. Either way, it’s tremendously unlikely he opens 2019 as the Giants closer.

GRADE: C+

It’s not about the contract. When people criticize Melancon, his contract is always the first thing out of their mouths. “We’re paying $15 million for this?” Giants fans will tweet after every run he gives up, accurately believing that they’re improving Twitter solely by not being racist on it. The money is spent though; it’s gone and it’s not coming back, and it’s Charles Johnson’s money anyway (and Larry Baer’s and David S. Wolff’s and a bunch of other people’s) and not yours, so try not to take it too personally.

No, Melancon gets a C+ for reasons that stay entirely on the field. The first is that while his ERA and FIP weren’t awful — not great by any means, but not actively bad — his walk rate was his worst since 2011 and his strikeout rate was his worst since he was a rookie in 2009. Melancon’s homer rate was low, which is why FIP likes him (xFIP has him at 3.91, which is unimpressive), but those numbers don’t inspire confidence for the future.

The second reason is that when you’re a reliever, your job is to not give up runs in big situations. Mark Melancon spent a whole lot of 2018 giving up runs in big situations. Despite a decent ERA, his WPA was -0.01, meaning that overall, he didn’t help the team win games. Adjusting that for the leverage of the situations he was put in, and his WPA/LI drops to -0.56, way behind Pierce Johnson and barely ahead of Cory Gearrin.

Win probability stats aren’t predictive and shouldn’t be used to describe a player’s talent level, but they do tell us what happened in the games he played in, and what happened wasn’t good. The rate stats above don’t tell us anything about what happened in the games Melancon pitched in, but they do give us reason to worry about his underlying talent level. Combine them, and a season that on its face seemed to be a mild disappointment becomes something more worrying.

It would be nice if Melancon comes back and makes the idea of doubting him look stupid. But then, that’s exactly what we said last year.