When your favorite team signs a new player, you don’t want to hear about the downside. You don’t want to hear about other players whom your team could have signed, or how your player will age, or if the deal constitutes an overpay. You want to hear about how awesome that player is and how much better he’ll make your team. I’m here for you. I’ll tell you those things about Mark Melancon, who has reportedly signed with the San Francisco Giants for what is likely to be something like four years and $62 million. And then… then comes some cold water. Just warning you.
The Giants needed a good reliever. Their bullpen was 22nd in wins above replacement last year, second-worst among teams that saw some postseason action. They were 15th if you base your value metric on runs allowed, which might be fair given their extreme park. They were 17th by strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%), which is the barest bones way to evaluate them, but splits the difference.
That’s not terrible, but it’s not good. Not for a contender. It looked a bit worse because of context. They cost their team win probability in sum (20th) and were seriously un-clutch (25th). They were poor in high-leverage situation. Melancon can help them there. He’s first among qualified relievers in WPA since his first season with the Pirates in 2013. He’ll give the Giants an opportunity to leverage an excellent pitcher in the most important crucial moments of a ballgame.
The 31-year-old has demonstrated basically all the skills you want from a top reliever. He’s been among the best at controlling the strike zone (having ranked 26th by K-BB% among the same sample of 123 cited above), while also limiting balls in the air (16th in ground-ball rate). The ability both to command the ball and keep it in the park should help him avoid the big inning, even if his strikeout rate was only 64th among the reliever sample, on par with Fernando Salas and Justin Wilson.
Melancon has a great cutter! It was 19th in total whiffs last year and 20th in ground-ball rate, among the 87 who threw a cutter a 100 times according to PITCHf/x. It had an inch-plus more horizontal movement than your average cutter and was a couple miles per hour zippier. And he has good command of it: he pitched inside to a lefty more than any other righty in the game last year (third when you combine righty and lefty batters) and yet hit only one batter last year. Check out his heat map to lefties below. Even if studying cutters by movement and velocity is problematic, you can say it’s a great pitch.
So far so good. Here comes the worry.
First, it’s a lot of money. Only twice before has a reliever received $60 million or more in net present value relative to today’s dollars, and if it’s $62 million in present value, it’s the biggest reliever deal ever. The two contracts with the biggest value in our dollars before this one were the ones handed to B.J. Ryan and Jonathan Papelbon. By a strict WAR-to-dollars calculation, neither worked out. Both Billy Wagner in 2006 and Joe Nathan in 2008 got $59 million in today’s dollars. Once again, neither worked out by dollars to peanuts.
Relievers never do work out by that metric, though, so we can use the sniff test and say it’s been a 50/50 proposition on deals this big. The Mets and Phillies were probably okay with their deals; the Twins and Blue Jays, probably not. We’ll get more data once Melancon, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen sign and live out their contracts, but a deal of this size for a reliever is rare.
Could the money allocated elsewhere, more wisely? Perhaps The Giants are currently 23rd on the left-field depth chart, with unproven youngsters Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson expected to receive most of the plate appearances there. But the corner outfield market is deep, they can probably find a cheap player to address that deficit. The rest of the team is in decent shape. Call this one a wash, too.
How about this, though: the Giants bullpen performed most poorly by a stat, clutch, that’s prone to wild variance. They were exactly the 100th-least-clutch bullpen this century in 2016. Of the other 99 teams, all but 10 improved the next season by that measure. Yes, many probably changed personnel, but clutch isn’t a thing that’s very sticky on the player level. Its year-to-year correlation is basically a flat line. The r-squared is .0004, meaning last year’s clutch explains less than half a percent of a pitcher’s clutch percentage next year. The Giants pen was going to improve without Melancon.
Lastly, there’s how Melancon will age, a fair criticism since the Giants gave him four years and will have him under contract when he turns 35. As I pointed out in my worrisome-free-agent piece for ESPN, a reliever’s value is tied tightly to his velocity, and velocity and strikeout rates mostly just decline every year in tandem.
A relevant passage from that piece:
The pitchers who ranked in the top 50 in saves last season averaged 94 mph on their fastballs, and Melancon was below 92. Only nine of the 50 averaged a lower fastball velocity, and of those nine, only Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon and Jeanmar Gomez still are considered closers.
The top 50 in saves last season averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings, and Melancon averaged just over eight. Sixteen of the group of 50 had fewer strikeouts than Melancon, and they include the three from above, plus incumbent closers like Sam Dyson and Ryan Madson.
One critique I received regarding this analysis is that Melancon has already succeeded with below-average velocity, so perhaps he can be expected to age differently. It’s a fair point, so I tried to go find seasonal comps for Melancon’s 2016 campaign. I found pitchers since 2000 who threw a cutter more than 30% of the time and averaged less than 91 mph, while also recording similar strikeout and ground-ball rates. It’s a mostly uninspiring bunch.
You can say ‘”mostly” because, man, any list with Mariano Rivera on it can’t be downplayed completely. And Melancon did have one of the better K-BB% figures of this group, even if that has to be slightly discounted by the fact that strikeout rates increased with some regularity over the course of this sample.
I left the saves category in, too, to show that few of these have been trusted in the same way the Pirates and Yankees trusted Melancon and Rivera, respectively. You could say that Melancon has been Mo-lite, in that he’s done something similar, but not for as long as the Yankee great.
But if you’re going to get excited about the Rivera comp, you have to be equally worried about the Janssen comp.
From 2010 to 2013, Janssen had a run that was comparable to Melancon’s, built on similar stuff. The then-Blue Jay righty was 15th in that time frame by WPA (out of 213), 37th in K-BB%, and 86th in ground-ball rate. It’s not a perfect match for Melancon, but he also built his career on a cutter and curve and command and uninspiring velocity — and he had a similar time frame of good work before it kinda fell apart. If his injuries had happened at a different time, he may have signed a big deal before he got hurt.
So, the Giants got better next year, most likely. But they also spent a bunch of money on a reliever, and it seems to be about a 50-50 proposition that it’ll work out. He’s either Ryan or Papelbon. Or, more correctly, he’s either Janssen or Rivera. That’s a heck of a bet on which to spend $60 million.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.