Can Mark Melancon finally be the shutdown closer he was supposed to be? For two years, he’s alternated between being hurt, ineffective, and effective-but-not-that-effective. Bruce Bochy will make encouraging comments to the media — “I think he’s throwing the ball really well right now” or “You know, he’s finally pain-free in his shoulder, and that’s big” or “I’m so confident that Mark won’t give up a run this inning that if he does, I’ve instructed Bam-Bam to pie me in the face, which surely won’t OH BANANAS” — and then, well, oh bananas.
But this year could be different, right? Now that Melancon’s finally healthy, and pay no attention to the 9.82 Spring Training ERA behind the curtain, he’ll come back strong, rock a 1.78 ERA in 65 innings, and save 37 games. Now that he’s done with the problem with his pronator, and the flexor strain, and the dead grey muscle, and he doesn’t need any more stem cell injections or PRP shots, and there definitely won’t be any new problems that crop up in 2019, things will be peachy.
Sigh. No. No one expects that, other than Melancon and, presumably, his mom.
But what about competence? Because, for as much criticism as he gets, Mark Melancon was a competent reliever last year.
YOU: Ah, but what about his large $15 million salary?
ME: Oh good, this brings me to my 700 word digression talking about how baseball’s economic structure has created this problem, and how Melancon is a symptom instead of a cause, and how he actually earned that money in the years before he came to San Francisco and it’s a kind of delayed reward for past performance, and how-
YOU: I will click on 7 different ads if you stop
A 3.23 ERA and 3.39 FIP are no great shakes for a reliever, but they’re also no terrible shakes. They’re perfectly serviceable shakes. Throw in a typically strong 52% ground ball rate and fastball velocity that was just as good as in 2015 and 2016, and you can’t really say there was anything wrong with Melancon’s year.
However, there were also some things wrong with Melancon’s year.
YOU: Yeah, he made too much money!
ME: -a blink of an eye, while the owners stay for as long as they live, preserved in amber, raking in money hand over fist. What was he supposed to do, turn down the biggest offer he got? He’s watching those billionaires make more money every day, and they never have to tell a soul how much, and he’s not supposed to do everything he can to take his share? His share that he earned with four straight years of sub-2.25 ERAs, including one where-
In 2018, Melancon’s strikeout rate plummeted and his walk rate soared. You can make excuses if you want — coming off injury, he probably wore down in September, which was by far his worst month — but the trend is worrying. Even more worrying: since coming to San Francisco, the effectiveness of his cutter has plummeted.
The cutter is Melancon’s bread and butter pitch, and has been since he established himself as a dominant reliever with the Pirates. Without it to rely on, what is he? What does he do well? What’s special about him?
Mark Melancon was signed to be a shutdown closer, and he’s working very hard to do that. Even setting aside Will Smith, though, and Sam Dyson and Reyes Moronta and whoever else may or may not be his competition for the job, he might not be good enough anymore. He was effective enough last year to be worth a spot on a major league roster, but he used to be more than that. New Melancon might not thrive, but he’ll be able to stick around without embarrassing himself.
A little bit worse than last year, but with a few more innings. He’ll have some ailment that costs him a month or so of the season, but mostly he’ll be around, he’ll be okay, and while he won’t be the closer, he’ll get a few chances to close because the actual closer needs some rest. But he won’t be a special pitcher.
He’s got a full no-trade clause and even if he didn’t, there won’t be a lot of teams lining up for him unless he’s Pittsburgh Melancon again. So no, he’s not going anywhere.