Barber: Giants pitcher Mark Melancon’s muscle was ‘dying off,’ now he’s ready to throw again
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.
“That was kind of one of my personal goals in my career, to never be on the DL,” Melancon said. “It’s a tough situation to be in.”
He returned to action on Aug. 12, but clearly wasn’t the guy who made three All-Star appearances with the Pirates. The Giants gave Melancon just one save opportunity after the break.
He blew that one. The team didn’t bother putting him on the DL again, but he did not pitch after Sept. 5.
In retrospect, Melancon knows he was stubborn. The team was paying him a lot of money to pitch out of the bullpen. The AT&T fans had greeted him warmly when he first arrived. He felt obligated to keep going back out there, especially with the Giants in the midst of a disastrous season.
“The whole psychology side of it, with the first year here, the expectations - of course that stuff plays into it,” Melancon said.
But let’s be honest. The Giants were cavalier with their investment.
“I was also following what I was told,” Melancon said. “The competitor in me of course wants to be out there, but I have to listen to people, too. I don’t know this stuff.”
Dr. Steven Shin finally operated on Melancon’s arm in Los Angeles on Sept. 12, and it wasn’t exactly a quick little nip and tuck.
“They said it wasn’t exploratory when they did the surgery,” Melancon observed. “But to me it kind of seemed exploratory. Fortunately, when they got in there they did the right thing.”
Compartment syndrome involves swelling or bleeding within a “compartment” of muscles, nerves and blood vessels. The bodily elements expand, but have nowhere to go. And the constriction can come from a variety of sources. Melancon said the condition is rare in ballplayers. He talked to former pitcher Kyle Lohse about his compartment syndrome, but found that the two cases weren’t all that similar.
The swelling of muscles, nerves and capillaries in Melancon’s forearm gradually cut off blood flow.
Shin told him that when he finally opened up the pitcher’s arm, his pronator muscle was turning gray from lack of oxygen. “So it’s literally dying off,” Melancon said.
When he showed me the torque motion that put so much strain on the muscle, the impressive new 10-inch scar on the inside of his elbow was hard to miss.
After all that, the closer is optimistic for a full recovery. Melancon said he was finally pain-free right about the time the season ended. Normally, he said, he’d go into spring training ready to let it rip. This year, he has stretched out his throwing program. He’ll use the spring to gradually ramp up his velocity.
And yes, Melancon’s excitement is tinged with nervousness. It’s understandable. He won’t really know what he has until he tries to fire a 91-mph cutter in late March.
“You’ve never gone through it before. So there’s that,” Melancon said. “There’s a lot of trust that has to be built up on your arm.”
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.