Mark Melancon's impact swayed Pirates to bring him back
March 17, 2016 12:00 AM
Pirates closer Mark Melancon at a workout earlier this spring at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — Mark Melancon wasn’t sure he would be back at McKechnie Field this spring. For much of the offseason, Melancon’s name was tossed around in trade talks as the Pirates heard offers for the two-time All-Star closer entering his final season before free agency.
Melancon stayed, agreeing to a $9.65 million contract to avoid arbitration, and so far looks as effective as he was in 2015 when he set a Pirates record with 51 saves, tied for sixth most in major league history. In Grapefruit League play, Melancon, 30, has thrown four scoreless innings.
“We went into the offseason thinking Mark would be a part of the bullpen until somebody compelled us to think differently,” general manager Neal Huntington said this week. “No one did.”
Instead, the Pirates made other moves to create financial flexibility in an offseason when the club had a slightly larger payroll than the previous year but also had a larger percentage of payroll already committed to internal player raises — arbitration and guaranteed contracts.
They let Pedro Alvarez walk rather than pay him the roughly $8 million he was expected to make in arbitration, and they traded Charlie Morton and his $8 million salary to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bringing back Melancon raises a fair question: As a small-market team, why spend a 10th of the payroll on a closer, who will pitch between 70 and 80 innings in a fully healthy season?
“It’s the difference between the theory and the reality,” Huntington said. “In theory, we have been a group that has not invested a bunch of money in our bullpen, because we felt we could better utilize those resources elsewhere.”
In reality, he explained, the Pirates mapped out multiple plans for their 2016 bullpen — if Melancon was traded, for instance, Tony Watson is a shoo-in closer — and ultimately decided their best possible roster, for the price, included Melancon and Watson anchoring the bullpen.
It’s hard to argue. In 2015, the Pirates were 79-1 when leading after seven innings. Many teams would pay top dollar for all-but-guaranteed zeroes in the eighth and ninth.
“I think they’ve realized how big of an impact the bullpen has,” Melancon said. “Obviously, I wanted to come back, but I’ve been in enough trades to know that it’s part of the business.”
That’s three trades, for those keeping score, one apiece in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Rather than worry through the offseason, Melancon said, “I just sat back and waited.” He and his wife welcomed their third child, Ella Grace, born Oct. 17, and mostly stayed near home in Houston.
That news alone might draw a sigh of relief from Pirates fans who clutched their rosaries early last season when Melancon had two three-run outings in April and was averaging under 90 mph on his cutter. Manager Clint Hurdle suggested perhaps Melancon’s irregular offseason, one in which he played an All-Star series in Japan in November, could have been a factor in the slow start.
“You’re seeing a guy have to [pitch] when probably his sword is not as sharp,” Hurdle said April 25. “But he’s still got a sword, and it will cut.”
Once Melancon secured 51 saves in 53 chances, no one seemed too worried about his fastball’s velocity, which averaged 91.3 mph for the season, according to Fangraphs. In three seasons with the Pirates, Melancon has a 1.85 ERA and 100 saves in 218⅔ innings.
“Fifty-one saves is no joke,” said Watson, who will make $3.45 million in 2016. “It’s a long year. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and you’ve got to stay the course. Mel did that. … I take a lot of pride in taking the baton and handing it off to him.”
Added catcher Chris Stewart: “Two blown saves throughout an entire season is not that big of a deal. But if you tack those on in early April, everybody starts questioning everything.”
The bullpen, bolstered by the additions of Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria at the trade deadline, posted a 2.65 ERA, best in the majors, and contributed to the team’s league-leading 36-17 record in one-run games.
According to the metric Win Probability Added, which attempts to measure a pitcher’s or hitter’s contribution based on the change in win expectancy between the start and end of a play, Melancon led all relievers last season with a 5.19 WPA, and Watson was fifth at 4.13. The only higher single-season marks among Pirates relievers were Rich Gossage’s 5.57 in 1977 and Kent Tekulve’s 5.68 in 1979, according to Fangraphs.
The bullpen, as a unit, led the majors with an 11.8 WPA — better than all on record except for the 2012 Baltimore Orioles (13.86).
“Anytime you can build a bullpen around what Mark Melancon and Tony Watson bring to the table, off and on the field, that’s a great starting point,” Huntington said. “They’ve been tremendous for us for a handful of years.”
Stewart, who first caught Melancon at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the New York Yankees organization in 2008, said there aren’t many pitchers with Melancon’s arsenal — a deceptive delivery paired with a darting cutter and a hammer curve that accounted for 42 of his 62 strikeouts last season, according to Fangraphs.
“Whenever we get to two strikes, guys know the curve is coming, and they still can’t hit it,” Stewart said. “They still can’t lay off it, either. It starts at their belts and falls in the dirt.”
This likely will be Melancon’s final season with the Pirates. Next offseason, he’ll hit free agency and be paid like one of the best closers in the game, since he is one.
Until then, he’s still here. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” again will sound at PNC Park, and Melancon will trot in from the bullpen.
“Mark is our horse down there, man,” right-hander Jared Hughes said. “We go to him every night. He comes in, and he slams the door.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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