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So, yeah, about Mark Melancon

His salary might skew expectations, but his season-long performance has been good. Has it been enough?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing good about Mark Melancon’s contract. I mean, it’s 100% good for him and his family, but from the Giants’ standpoint, it really is all bad. To wit:

  • Full no-trade clause
  • Two years, $28 million remaining
  • $15.5 million competitive balance tax number (in each of the next two seasons)
  • Signing bonus that paid him $12 million in 2017, $8 million deferred at $1M each year from 2021-28
  • An opt-out clause after this year... which is great for the team theoretically, but in reality, he’ll opt-in, and it’s that momentary tease that makes it part of this all bad listing.
  • Going to mention the full no-trade clause because it’s nuts that made it in there.

Obviously, the Giants made a series of poor decisions that squeezed them, hammered them to the point of desperation; and in their desperation turned, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand. For who is Mark Melancon?

Bobby Evans said at the time:

We had to get Mark in our uniform. I mean, he’s an impressive man, impressive closer, a way to finish the game for us. What he’s done the last four years: you know, amongst the league leaders in saves... and, you know, his high groundball rate, his soft contact rate... I mean, a lot to like.

Indeed, in the Statcast data available for the two years prior to his signing, Melancon’s groundball rates were 58.1% and 55.2% in 2015 and 2016, both well above league average. His weak contacts were 5.6% and 3.6%, respectively, and his percentages for “topped” balls (more likely to get groundballs) were 48.4% and 46.9%. That is an accurate profile. It’s not that the Giants made a bad scouting analysis.

Did the Giants know that Melancon had arm troubles when they signed him, however? It wasn’t long after that he began experiencing problems with his forearm, and his 2017 offseason involved pronator surgery on dead muscle in his throwing arm. I was highly skeptical of a healthy and successful return from him, and to his tremendous credit, he made me look extremely wrong very quickly. And the Giants have managed to slow play him to maximize his success.

His season line has been successful enough: 29:12 strikeouts to walks in 34.1 innings pitched, 1 home run allowed of 41 total hits given up, and a 2.98 FIP to go with a 2.60 ERA. He’s pitched the 13th-fewest innings on the Giants this season, but that ranking includes Pablo Sandoval and Chase d’Arnaud. His roster days-to-games-pitched ratio is highly skewed. He’s been on the roster uninterrupted since June 1st (113 days, including today) and has just 37 appearances (Sam Dyson and Tony Watson have 44 over that same span). But that’s mainly because the team is taking it slowly with him as they did with Will Smith following his Tommy John surgery.

Will Smith’s return has worked out extremely well. You’d have to say the same of Mark Melancon’s. But is there any chance of the Giants’ getting their intended value out of the player and the contract?

Let’s answer the second question first: No.

There’s very little chance a closer will ever “live up” to their highly-touted, record-setting free agent contract. Unless a guy is Mariano Rivera, he’s going to be not be “worth” $20 million a year (as Melancon made in 2018). Mark Melancon has never pitched more than 76 innings in a season, so on the surface, committing 10% of your team’s payroll to a player who won’t factor into more than half your games feels a little bit tricky, always doomed to disappoint.

Will Mark Melancon ever be the elite closer they initially signed? Possibly! Maybe!

His 2018 Statcast data doesn’t suggest “he’s back” to his pre-2017 ways, but there’s still very possibly a major league closer in there. On Tuesday night’s Giants Outsiders, former Mike Fontenot impressionist Grant Brisbee declared:

I think he’s going to be a fantastic addition to the bullpen next year, based on what I’ve seen these last two months. He’s getting his command back, he’s spotting that cutter on the outside and inside, the curveball is biting... it’s generally going below the zone when he wants it to...

His groundball rate is at 54.1%, still well above league average (45.8%), but at the moment a career low. Similarly, his Pop Ups and Topped contact rates have dropped below his career averages (3.6% and 40.5%, respectively, versus 4.7% and 44.6%, respectively), and hitters are barreling the ball at a much higher rate (4.5%) than ever before (3.1% for his career). So, he’s getting hit harder. But at the same time, his Whiff Rate (23.9%) is exactly the same as his career rate — his stuff is still there. Wonky command and spotty control following arm surgery just feels like a natural connection.

One more way to look at Melancon’s 2018 is via spin rates. Like I did in the Hunter Strickland and Bumgarner pieces, here’s a look at the major league averages in velocity and spin rate for Melancon’s pitches:

4-seam FB: 2,226 rpm / 92.9 mph

Cutter: 2,185 rpm / 88.0 mph

Curveball: 2,090 rpm / 84.6 mph

Split Finger: 1,524 rpm / 84.8 mph

Basically, more spin means more movement, and higher spin rates tend to mean more strikeouts (lower mean more groundballs and weak contact)

Here are Melancon’s totals for his four pitches:

4-seam FB: 2,456 rpm / 91.4 mph

Cutter: 2,440 rpm / 91.1 mph

Curveball: 2,743 rpm / 82.6 mph

Split Finger: 1,792 rpm / 82.2 mph

These totals are all lower than Melancon’s totals from previous seasons, but not incredibly so, and as you can see, these spin rates are all well above league average. You might even say incredibly so. Therefore, Mark Melancon look-alike Grant Brisbee is right: Melancon is fine and he’ll be a great add to the bullpen next season (should he be able to handle an increased workload).

I would go so far as to say he’ll be penciled in as the closer once the offseason commences. Maybe that means the Giants will dangle Will Smith (who’s arbitration eligible) as trade bait, or maybe they’ll simply juggle roles to firm up what could be an above average ‘pen to compliment Patrick Corbin and, like, Charlie Morton in the rotation.

His increased walk rate is a little bit concerning because he’s really created his own problems on the basepaths in September (11 baserunners — 4 via walks — in 6 innings / 7 appearances), but looking solely at the data, it’s tough to make the case that he hasn’t been an effective pitcher. He hasn’t been the guy the Giants signed, but how often do we really get exactly what we want?