Even though relief pitching dominated the narrative of both the 2015 and 2016 postseasons, and even though Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen made his contract look looked relatively tame inside of two weeks, I still couldn’t believe that Mark Melancon got a four-year, $62 million contract. Prior to that deal, the two biggest reliever contracts were four years and $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon and five years for $47 million for B.J. Ryan, two contracts their respective teams no doubt came to regret.
Melancon himself has been healthy and productive in his four seasons with the Pirates. He has thrown at least 71 innings every season with ERAs between 1.39 and 2.23 each year. However, he has achieved that success because of beneficial contextual factors and excellent command—he has walked between 1.0 and 1.6 batters per season in those four seasons—with good but not exceptional strikeout ability. He struck out 8.2 batters per nine in 2016 and has done the same for his career. That is only the 60th best rate among the 85 relievers who threw 60 or more innings last season, and Melancon’s 91.8 mph fastball does not hint at any untapped strikeout potential. Chapman and Jansen each struck out more than 13 batters per nine in 2016.
The major concern I had with Melancon was that his consistent overachievement of his xFIP seemed clearly tied to his pitcher-friendly home park in Pittsburgh. In his four seasons there, Melancon has allowed between a 3.2 percent and 8.3 percent home run-per-flyball rate, which is well below the MLB average of around 10 percent (and even higher in 2016). PNC Park, meanwhile, allows 10 percent fewer home runs than an average park, which is third lowest in baseball.
AT&T Ballpark is even more extreme in limiting home runs. That means fantasy owners do not need to be concerned that Melancon will suddenly allow home runs in bunches. But it was the reason I was surprised that Melancon commanded the money he did. The Giants’ extreme home park seemed like the perfect place to turn an unheralded reliever who avoids walks and allows flyballs into the next great closer. By peripheral stats, relievers like Christopher Devenski and Ryan Dull are comparable to Melancon. Jesse Chavez struck out 8.5 batters and walked 2.4 batters per nine after being converted into a reliever in 2016, and he commanded just $5.75 million on a one-year deal with the Angels. That’s obviously not the same as Melancon, even apart from the differences in their track records, but if you put Chavez in a more spacious ballpark, would his 15.4 percent home run-per-flyball rate come down and his 4.43 ERA with it?
But the more I looked into Melancon, the more I realized I was selling him short. First, while he may have benefited from his ballpark to a certain extent, he was not relying on outs generated by long flyballs. Since 2013, only 10.0 percent of his flyballs have flown 380 of more feet, which was 30th lowest among the 89 relievers with 10 or more saves. And only 1.8 percent of his flyballs carried 400 or more feet, which was 11th lowest. That type of profile would play well in any ballpark.
|Percent of FBs > 380 Feet||10.0%||30|
|Percent of FBs > 400 Feet||1.8%||11|
|wOBA Allowed with Platoon Adv||.257||25|
|wOBA Allowed without Platoon Adv||.193||1|
|*Rankings are among relievers with 10+ saves between 2013-16|
Meanwhile, Melancon has excelled at perhaps the most important aspect of closing: getting outs against opposite-handed hitters. Since 2013, he has allowed a wOBA of just .193 against opposite-handed hitters, which is the best among those 89 closers.
|Seung Hwan Oh||.201|
After dealing with years of Santiago Casilla (.315 wOBA without the platoon adv., 64th) and after seeing closer-in-waiting Hunter Strickland (.314 wOBA with the platoon adv.) struggle with the same issue in 2016, Melancon should dramatically cut down on the number of stressful Giants ninth innings in 2017 and beyond.
Melancon is not an extreme strikeout reliever, and since most fantasy formats rely on strikeouts as a category, he falls short of the elite fantasy options at the position like Jansen. However, Melancon has pretty much everything else imaginable going for him. He has excellent command, he pitches in the friendliest home park in front of an excellent defense, he is effective against both left and right-handed hitters, and he has no durability concerns. Trust is not a word frequently associated with relievers, but if any reliever deserves to have the term applied to him, it’s Melancon. To me, that makes him a top-five option—Brad has him 10th. And maybe that $60 million contract makes some sense after all.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt