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Mark Melancon Puts Giants Back on Level for NL West Dominance

The San Francisco Giants' run of even-year championships finally ended in 2016 in large part because their bullpen was cursed. Or to put it slightly more bluntly, just not very good.

All they had to do to solve this was sign the most expensive relief pitcher in Major League Baseball history.

The honor now belongs to Mark Melancon. The early buzz at the first day of the winter meetings on Monday had the Giants closing in on a deal with the veteran right-hander, and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports was first to report the terms: four years and $62 million.

Of course, the signing didn't really become official until the three-time All-Star made like a true 21st century man and took to Twitter:

If we want to be technical, it's actually "a part." While we're at it, we should also note that Melancon's four-year deal is really a two-year, $34 million deal with a two-year option. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, he can opt out after earning $17 million in each of the first two seasons.

But, whatever. The $62 million in guaranteed money available in Melancon's deal, which is $12 million more than the $50 million Jonathan Papelbon got from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011. Let the record show, there's a lot more money in today's MLB, and also elite relief pitching is even more valued now than it was then.

And after 2016, the Giants certainly have more cause than most to value elite relief pitching.

Their bullpen lacked a true shutdown arm in 2016, and that led to no shortage of aches in manager Bruce Bochy's plus-sized head. Despite finishing with a respectable 3.65 ERA, Giants relievers led the league with 30 blown saves.

That was a major factor in them winning just 87 games and falling four games short of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West race. And after Madison Bumgarner put the Giants in the National League Division Series with a shutout in the Wild Card Game, the Chicago Cubs' four-run rally in the ninth inning of Game 4 resulted in the Giants finally succumbing to their biggest weakness.

It's a good thing that the core of the 2016 Giants will be back for 2017. They'll continue to ride a rotation led by Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto and a lineup led by Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt.

But with Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez all free agents this winter, the Giants had just the window they needed to rebuild their bullpen. Signing Melancon is the biggest step forward they figure to make in that regard.

“It gives all of the club a peace of mind and confidence with as many close games we play that we have a lockdown guy for the ninth,” said general manager Bobby Evans (via John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle).

Unlike fellow free-agent relief aces Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen—who will each make sure Melancon's status as baseball's most expensive reliever is short-lived—Melancon doesn't get by on overpowering stuff that allows him to miss bats.

The 31-year-old worked at 91.0 mph with his cutter in 2016 and has struck out just 7.7 batters per nine innings over the last two seasons. To these extents, he's bringing nothing new to a Giants pen that tied for 27th in fastball velocity and 27th in strikeouts per nine in 2016.

However, Melancon mixes command and movement as well as any reliever out there.

His pinpoint command is reflected in his rate of 1.4 walks per nine innings since 2013, but more so in how he works on the edges of the strike zone. Eno Sarris of FanGraphs has more insight on that.

When you can do that, you don't need velocity. It's good enough to have a loopy 12-to-6 curveball and a cutter that can do this:

Melancon may not miss bats with his approach, but he does miss barrels. Only Zach Britton has a higher soft contact percentage over the last two seasons, and much of Melancon's soft contact ends up in the same place as Britton's: on the ground.

"Perfect for our defense," is how Evans characterized that aspect of Melancon's game, via Chris Haft of MLB.com.

You know what else is great about command and movement? Unlike velocity, they're not under constant threat to be taken away by age. Melancon's a living reminder of that, as his command and movement have remained on point even as he's lost velocity over the last two seasons.

Assuming he can keep that up, he could be just as effective in the next four seasons as he's been in the last four seasons. A good way to punctuate that is to look at where he places among his fellow relievers in ERA since 2013:

Look at that! First. This guy must be pretty good.

And not only that, but he's also reliable too. Despite not becoming a full-time closer until 2014, Melancon still leads all relievers in win probability added over the last four seasons. Other relievers have been more overpowering, but all but one of them (Britton) have had more meltdowns than Melancon.

To be fair, there would have been an equally large number of things to rave about if the Giants had signed Chapman or Jansen instead. They are also elite relief aces, and either arguably would have been an even better solution for what ailed the Giants in 2016.

Nonetheless, nobody should be thinking the Giants merely "settled" for Melancon. They paid a pretty penny for a big-time improvement in an area where they needed just that. And with him in place, you can already see a team that ought to be more well-rounded in 2017.

And despite FanGraphs' early projections giving the Dodgers the edge in the 2017 NL West race, they still have moves to make before they're on the Giants' level. The Dodgers have talent, but currently none of it is located at third base, second base or closer.

Melancon's signing filled the only major hole the Giants had. All they need now is some outfield depth, a back-end starter and supporting arm or two for their bullpen. Not too much to ask for.

There's still a lot of winter left. But for now, the Giants can rest easy knowing that lifting the curse on their bullpen has given them the upper hand in the NL West.

 

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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