SAN FRANCISCO — If you ask me, Mark Melancon is, more than any other single player, the key to the Giants’ 2018 season. Apparently, not a lot of people share this view. Because when Melancon set up shop during team-wide media access Friday, I was the only reporter who followed the pitcher into a suite on the upper level of AT&T Park.
In other rooms, a tangle of cameras and audio recorders clustered around the likes of Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. But I had Melancon to myself for a good 11 minutes.
Why would I anoint this guy the wild card in the Giants’ 2018 deck? Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner are still the best players on the team. McCutchen and Longoria are the most significant additions. Young pups Steven Duggar and Tyler Beede may be important to the future of the franchise.
But if you could assign a value to each role on the team and multiply it by the degree of uncertainty surrounding that player, the man with the highest product would be Mark Melancon.
The Giants are 94-140 since the 2016 All-Star break, not counting their appearance in the ’16 postseason. The biggest culprit in their second-half collapse in 2016 was the bullpen. Melancon, considered one of the top closers in the game, was signed a year ago to fix that problem. Instead, he fueled it.
Bothered, and finally sidelined, by a problem in his right forearm, Melancon was a shadow of the pitcher who had split time between the Pirates and Nationals in 2016. His ERA shot from 1.64 to 4.50. His WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) ballooned from .897 to 1.433. His ratio of saves to blown saves went from 47-4 to 11-5.
Melancon earned $16 million in salary and bonus money while committing such misdeeds, the opening hit in a four-year, $62 million contract. Giants fans — and, I’m guessing, executives — are understandably jittery.
And the reliever is as eager as he’s ever been to make a statement.
“I’m definitely excited to kind of get a fresh start and get after it,” Melancon said.
He was excited last year, too, when he joined a team that had won three World Series in the previous seven seasons and was hailed as its missing puzzle piece. Melancon now admits that his arm felt wrong practically from the first day of spring training.
He wasn’t too alarmed, because this had become part of his annual routine since 2012, when the forearm started to nag at him.
“Every year I would feel symptoms,” Melancon said. “Usually it would take a month, and then it would start to go away.”
So even when Melancon got into the regular season and April melted into May, and still the pain had not subsided, his reflex was to pitch through it.
Anyway, he wasn’t doing so badly.
He wasn’t dominant, by any means. But he was muddling through. Things got worse in June, though, including a rock-bottom outing June 18 when Melancon entered a game at Colorado with a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth and was shelled for four runs, including a home run, while retiring just one batter.
The Giants placed him on the 10-day disabled list May 9, and again on June 28. They were the first trips to the DL in his nine seasons in the big leagues.