A cut above: Melancon brings stability to Giants' 'pen
Offseason acquisition expected to be major boost at closer
By Richard Justice
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In their first Spring Training together with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, catcher Russell Martin had a simple message for reliever Mark Melancon.
"Listen, we're going to throw that cutter all the time, and you're just going to stick to it," Martin said.
They'd had only a couple of bullpen sessions when Martin saw the weapon that Melancon didn't fully understand he had. In the four seasons since that chat, Melancon has been one of the five best closers in baseball -- more on that later. If you're wondering why players rave about the current Toronto backstop Martin as both a teammate and a leader, that was yet another example.
Fast forward to this spring, and Melancon is the guy the San Francisco Giants are rebuilding their bullpen around. After throwing some young guys into the fire last season, the Giants believe they've got a nice blend of veterans and younger arms to give manager Bruce Bochy plenty of late-game options.
There are plenty of reasons San Francisco is confident about making the postseason for the fifth time in eight seasons. Outfielder Hunter Pence is healthy. So is right-hander Matt Cain -- for the first time in a few years.
The Giants rode great bullpens to World Series celebrations in 2010, '12 and '14. On those teams, they had a core four of relievers: Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. (Posey, Bumgarner and Cain were the only other players on all three of San Francisco's championship teams.)
Those four relievers are no longer with the Giants, and president of baseball operations Brian Sabean and general manager Bobby Evans have reconstructed the bullpen.
Last season, the Giants made the postseason despite a bullpen that blew 30 saves and converted just 59 percent of its chances -- the sixth-worst percentage in the Majors.
The Giants lost 16 games in 2016 in which they led in the seventh inning or later. When San Francisco won the World Series in '14, it lost just six times when leading after seven. Also, the Giants lost nine times when leading in the ninth inning or later last season. That happened just three times in '14.
"You work so hard to get those leads, and it's demoralizing not to hold 'em," Bochy said.
Even before watching the Cubs rally for four ninth-inning runs to win the deciding Game 4 of the National League Division Series last fall, the Giants were focused on fixing their bullpen.
Evans acquired left-hander Will Smith from the Brewers at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and the offseason was about getting a proven closer. Enter Melancon, 31, with a four-year, $62 million contract.
"It gives you a sense of comfort at the back end of the game," Bochy said. "What it allows you to do is build down a little [with other guys], and makes it easier to put guys in the roles you want them in."
Here's how Melancon got here: He'd had some very good stretches -- a 2.85 ERA in 91 appearances for the Astros in 2010-11. He had a solid second half for the Red Sox in '12.
But when the Pirates acquired him in a trade in December 2012, Melancon wasn't one of the elite guys. The Bucs used him mostly as a setup guy in his first season with them.
By the end of that first spring with the Pirates, Melancon was on his way to being one of the best in the game, thanks to Martin convincing him to make the cutter his bread-and-butter pitch.
"[Martin] instilled confidence in me and showed me I don't have to go away from it," Melancon said. "I don't have to try to trick hitters, do different things, outthink it. I just use it, embrace it. That was really good for me -- kind of getting that stubbornness while learning how to do it along the way."
Melancon has thrown the cutter around 60 percent of the time the past four seasons and has made his curveball a reliable second pitch. In those four seasons, his 1.80 ERA was the third best in the Majors among relievers, behind only Wade Davis and Zach Britton. Melancon's .914 WHIP was the fifth lowest. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 5.96, the fourth best overall.
To sum it all up: San Francisco probably will not let nine ninth-inning leads slip away in 2017.
Melancon had toyed with the cutter through the years. Yankees instructor Billy Connors had worked with him on it in the Minor Leagues. Melancon had watched Mariano Rivera throw it and picked Rivera's brain about it. Houston teammate Brandon Lyon helped Melancon with it during their time together with the Astros.
"I'd sprinkle it in during games," Melancon said. "That was about it."
Martin, who'd caught Rivera, convinced Melancon to forget the other stuff.
"If you locate it, it's every bit as good," Martin told him.
OK, maybe not Rivera good. But plenty good enough.
The Giants pursued Melancon aggressively, and his decision ended up being an easy one.
"What's cool is when I get here, and it's even more of what I thought it was going to be -- professionalism, organization, the quality of everything," Melancon said. "Pretty cool."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.