If you paid any attention at all to the 2016 Giants, you noticed that the bullpen was pretty terrible. When the game was on the line – when all the cards were on the table – the bullpen came in and ruined everything. Need I remind anyone of NLDS Game 4 against the Chicago Cubs? I didn’t think so.
Anyway, that’s old news. The Giants did something about this problem, inking closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62MM contract on December 5.
Some in the baseball industry think that the contract is risky. There are two main reasons: first, Melancon relies heavily on limiting home runs, and was helped by playing half his games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, an extreme pitcher’s park. Indeed, his HR/FB ratio over the last four years (5.9%) has been much better than the league average (10.1%), and if it regresses, Melancon is in trouble. The obvious counterargument is that Melancon is moving move from one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball (PNC Park) to the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in baseball (AT&T).
The second knock on Melancon is that his strikeout rate is just mediocre. This makes him risky because if he suddenly starts walking people or losing command within the strike zone, there’s no buffer of dominant stuff to fall back on to sustain the success he’s had for most of his career. Before delving into that success, it’s worth understanding where the Giants are coming from.
Somehow, the Giants bullpen wasn’t dead last in Win Probability Added (WPA) last year. They were 10th-worst in baseball at -0.01. The bullpen essentially broke even in terms of increasing or decreasing the team’s chances of winning.
For example, if a starter went six-plus innings, leaving the game with two on and one out in the 7th with a team win probability of 80 percent, the Giants bullpen (as a whole, for the entire season) sustained those odds. Of course, in reality, things don’t quite play out that way in individual games, since the odds at the end of a game are always 100 or 0 percent. Essentially, they blew some games and they saved some games. Compared to other teams in baseball, the Giants were significantly worse. They were the only playoff team with a negative bullpen WPA. When the dust all settled, the bullpen was pretty bad, both in and out of context, and the breakeven WPA reflects that.
Enter Mark Melancon. Over the last four seasons, no relief pitcher has a better WPA. He’s put up 13.25 WPA in 290 innings. While WPA isn’t necessarily a sustainable skill, it’s hard to argue that the following players lucked their way onto the top 10 WPA leaderboard among relief pitchers since 2013: Melancon (13.25), Zach Britton (12.97), Andrew Miller (10.94), Wade Davis (10.41), Tony Watson (10.31), Craig Kimbrel (9.32), Aroldis Chapman (9.21), Dellin Betances (9.00), Kenley Jansen (8.98), and Joaquin Benoit (8.92). Those are some of the very best relievers in the game.
Notice that Melancon is way ahead of Britton, and way, way ahead of everybody else. Melancon’s stellar WPA basically means that, since 2013, he’s been the best reliever in baseball at increasing his team’s chances of winning. That seems significant.
On a broader scope, Melancon has been among the best relievers in the game in other key areas:
Relative to his peers, Melancon has pitched a ton of innings, been among the best in baseball at preventing runs, limited baserunners extremely well, and induced plenty of soft contact. While he may not be the most dominant relief pitcher out there, the results speak for themselves, and the Giants are clearly expecting those results to continue.
Melancon will remain in an extreme pitcher’s park. He’s a ground-ball guy who has a tendency to allow weak contact, and he will have an excellent infield defense behind him. He has a track record of success (albeit not the kind that’s always sustainable).
The Giants seem to covet pitchers like Melancon who induce weak contact, instead of guys who routinely strike out 10+ batters per nine. Johnny Cueto is like that. Matt Cain was like that. Those two perfectly illustrate the risk and reward with players of their statistical profile.
Cueto took a step forward in what was already a brilliant career when he moved to the wide open spaces of AT&T Park with stellar infield defense behind him. Matt Cain, however, lost the control that enabled him to be so successful early in his career, and his ability to induce weak contact and limit home runs disappeared, and he suddenly became one of the worst pitchers in baseball.
Any large commitment to a baseball player is risky. Melancon is arguably a type of pitcher who comes with some added risk. Despite it, Melancon has a tremendous track record, will play in a great ballpark for his skill-set, and will be helped by San Francisco’s superior infield defense. There are no sure things in baseball, but continued success for Melancon is well within the realm of possibility, and it’s exactly what the Giants expect and need.