It only took watching one game — their season finale — to recognize the San Francisco Giants’ fatal weakness. The Giants led the eventual world champion Chicago Cubs 5-2 heading into the top of the ninth in Game 4 of the NLDS, just three outs away from sending the series back to a nervous Wrigley field for a decisive fifth game. All they needed was for their bullpen to not blow it. But blow it they did.
That game was not an isolated incident, of course, but rather a microcosm of a weakness — preserving late-game leads — that had plagued the team all season long. In fact, no team in baseball blew more saves than the Giants, who led the league with 30.
The difference in blown saves between San Francisco and the next closest playoff team — the Dodgers, with 22 — was the same difference as that between the Dodgers and the Orioles, who tied for the second fewest blown saves in baseball and (remember, Buck) employ Zach Britton.
So yeah, no lead was safe once the Giants handed the ball over to their bullpen. That habit reared its ugly head at the worst possible time and ended “even-year bulls**t” in excruciating, if unsurprising, fashion.
Today, Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans took a significant step toward solving that problem, reportedly signing former Pirate and National Mark Melancon:
Sources: The Giants and Mark Melancon have agreed to a deal, pending a physical; Melancon is going through his physical.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 5, 2016
Until Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen inevitably sign their respective mega-deals, Melancon’s new contract will briefly hold the record for the richest ever signed by a reliever, surpassing Jonathan Papelbon’s 4-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies from 2011:
Just a few years ago, this would have been crazy money for a closer, even one as good as Melancon. It’s still a little bit crazy, but in this brave new world of Andrew Millers, relief aces are being valued more than ever before, and the terms here make sense.
For a team as desperate for late-inning reliability as the Giants, this is a no-brainer. San Francisco is able to reel in one of the three best relievers on the market without paying the truly excessive amounts it would take to land either Chapman or Jansen, allowing the Giants to spend those dollars and shore up weaknesses elsewhere.
Since a disastrous 2012 season with the infamous chicken-and-beer Boston Red Sox, Melancon has been an unquestionably elite reliever:
|2016||PIT / WSH||71.1||1.64||2.42||8.20||1.51||5.42||0.259|
That’s a presidential cycle worth of dominance, and at 31 years old, he figures to have some more left in the tank. Things could get a little dicey on the back end of this deal once Melancon hits his mid-thirties, but he’ll very likely be worth the cost in the immediate term.
Melancon’s success can primarily be tied to the dramatically increased usage of his cutter, as you can see in this chart from Brooks Baseball:
It’s a pitch that typically sits 91-93 MPH, and elicits a groundball well over half the time it’s put in play. The average exit velocity against Melancon’s cutter in 2016 was only 82.4 MPH, according to Baseball Savant, and batters were able to get an extra base hit against it just seven times out of nearly 600 cutters thrown. That’s his go-to pitch, and though he does supplement it, primarily with a low-80s knuckle curve, it’s the cutter that the Giants are paying for more than anything else.
Now, consider the deals Jansen and Chapman are likely to get, and you can see why Melancon was made the Giants’ top priority. For comparison’s sake, here’s how he stacked up against his two primary rivals on the reliever free agency market (all stats per Baseball Prospectus):
There’s no question that Melancon is the least effective of the three. He’s also the oldest. But those two are sure to command more years and more money. The Giants get a slightly worse reliever (though still damn good), but for a shorter commitment and with at least a few extra million dollars per year to address needs elsewhere on the roster. That’s a fair compromise.
Here’s the dirty little secret about the Giants, however. Despite their bullpen's inability to protect a late-inning lead, it really wasn’t that bad overall:
By FIP, they were actually the 11th most effective group of relievers in baseball. That doesn’t take the sting off of 30 blown saves, but it suggests that this group, even before adding a top-flight closer, was not a lost cause.
The Giants do have guys like Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla floating out there as free agents right now. Those guys have been mostly effective, if occasionally frustrating, in the black and orange. Losing them would not be without impact.
But if the Giants had a checklist hanging in their front office entitled “Offseason Plans 2016,” the very first item on that list would have been “sign good closer.” As one of the top three closers on the market, Mark Melancon fits that bill, and if San Francisco can make a few more effective moves, they will find themselves right back in contention in 2017.
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Joe Clarkin is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.