As noted during the Chris Martin review, the Braves acquiring some relief help at the Trade Deadline was a bit of a fait accompli, given just how bad the bullpen had been up to that point. Martin’s acquisition was the opening salvo; the Braves also acquired Shane Greene from the Tigers in exchange for two minor leaguers. Mark Melancon only cost Tristan Beck and Dan Winkler, player-wise, but he came with a different burden — a hefty $14 million commitment for the 2020 season, as well as the pro-rated portion of his salary for the remainder of 2019. The Braves not only took on the responsibility for paying Melancon a substantial chunk of change, but sent the Giants players, too. In any case, the price was paid, and Melancon’s first go-around in an Atlanta uniform was ultimately pretty successful on the field.
What were the expectations?
Melancon was in the midst of a solid-to-great, if not outright dominant, campaign with the Giants when he came aboard (83 ERA-, 79 FIP-, 78 xFIP-). The projection systems figured that he’d probably regress a bit from those numbers for the remainder of the 2019 season. In any case, the Braves needed basically anyone else to throw relief innings, and Melancon was a pricy way of meeting that need.
What went right in 2019?
Melancon pretty much blew his modest projections out of the water. It’s actually kind of impressive just how good he was since coming over.
- 1.83 FIP (41 FIP-);
- 2.16 xFIP (48 xFIP-);
- 3.86 ERA (87 ERA-, see below);
- 1.32 WPA (ninth-most for any reliever after the Trade Deadline, by far the highest of any reliever traded midseason this year); and
- Across 23 outings, only two outings where he cost the team WPA (the Braves would go on to lose in only lose one of the two).
Like Chris Martin, his run prevention lagged behind his peripherals due to a 66.4 percent strand rate. In any case, he managed 0.7 fWAR in just 21 innings, and finished second among Braves relievers in both WPA and fWAR despite being on the roster for just two months.
Part of what went right — Melancon’s propensity for drama-free innings in close games:
- August 23, slams the door on the Mets in the 14th in 1-2-3 fashion with a one-run lead;
- September 19, 1-2-3 inning to preserve a one-run lead against the Phillies;
- September 7, you guessed it, 1-2-3 inning with a one-run lead; and
- August 17, against the Dodgers, just a two-out single and another one-run lead preserved.
You get the idea.
I’m somewhat skeptical that Melancon can keep up that same level of dominant-reliever performance into his 2020 season (which the Braves are mostly stuck with, unless they can find a creative way to offload him and his contract), but it was exactly what the Braves needed to close out the 2019 season.
What went wrong in 2019?
Let’s be real — what people are going to focus on here is the beginning of the end, rather than what came before it. Melancon had by far (very, very far) his worst outing as a Brave in Game 1 of the NLDS.
Melancon came on with two outs in the eighth, with the tying run on second. Matt Carpenter hit a stupid fly ball bloop that found grass near the left-field line (.165 xwOBA), scoring the tying run (another runner was thrown out trying to score to end the inning). The Braves didn’t score in the eighth, and Melancon was asked to keep a 3-3 game tied in the top of the ninth.
He did not. With one out, the Cardinals recorded five consecutive non-outs (single, single, walk, double, intentional walk), and Melancon was left in to face the lefty-batting Kolten Wong despite Sean Newcomb being primed and ready in the bullpen; Wong would hit a weak dribbler double to score St. Louis’ fourth and fifth runs of the inning.
This wasn’t Melancon’s only blowup, but it was the worst one, spread across two innings. He’d had a couple in the regular season — the crazy Miami meltdown on August 10 (four straight singles with one out, pulled for Shane Greene, who allowed another single and a double to tie the game before Sean Newcomb got walked off on the next inning), and a game four days later against the Mets where Melancon allowed four straight hits and was pulled in favor of Jerry Blevins, who struck out Michael Conforto to end the game — but this one was worse in magnitude in every way.
Had the Braves actually won the NLDS, that could have been something consigned to the dustbin of postseason history, but they didn’t, so it looms larger. Melancon actually did fine in his other two outings, locking down the two Atlanta wins in the series, and his combined postseason xwOBA-against was .292. Still, he wasn’t flawless, and one such flaw came at a particularly problematic time.
What to expect in 2020?
The projection systems are still likely going to expect Melancon to be a solid-but-not-super-awesome relief option next season, though perhaps his superb performance over the last two months of 2019 might bump that up somewhat. In any case, he’ll probably be the anointed closer for the Braves unless they reshuffle their bullpen yet again. With both him and Shane Greene likely in the mix, the Braves will have a more settled backend hierarchy in the bullpen for the start of 2020 than they’ve had at any other point in recent history, dating back to the Craig Kimbrel years.