At the 2019 MLB Trade Deadline, Mark Melancon was the latest in a a long line of surprising, significant, and controllable trade acquisitions that Alex Anthopoulos has produced in his different stops as a general manager. Along with Chris Martin and Shane Greene, Mark played a significant role in the transformation of the Braves bullpen into one of the best relief units in the game. He also provided long needed stability in the role of closer for the Braves.
Entering 2020, despite already having significant financial commitments in place for Melancon, the Braves significantly invested in both quality and depth for their bullpen, signing Martin and talented southpaw Will Smith to multi-year deals and holding on to Shane Greene in his final year of arbitration. However, despite plenty of options to utilize, manager Brian Snitker remained steadfast in his commitment to Melancon as the primary closer.
Though Melancon did see a bit of decline in the quality of his pitches (not surprising in his AGE-35 season), Snitker’s decision to stick with him in the ninth ( and in a few cases the seventh) proved to be wise.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: On the surface, Melancon did exactly was the Braves needed for him to do. Over 22 2⁄3 innings in 23 total appearances, Melancon was 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA and produced 11 saves in 13 opportunities during the regular season. With the unexpected struggles of Smith, Melancon emerged as the clear preference to secure wins for Atlanta. When also considering the struggles of the starting rotation, the stability Melancon provided was highly valuable.
Furthermore, Melancon proved to be even better in the postseason. Over 6 1⁄3 innings in seven total appearances, Melancon did not allow a walk or an earned run while recording two saves and five strikeouts. He consistently got the job done when he was called upon, and while he was not Automatic against the Dodgers, he did secure the victories in Game 1 and Game 2 for Atlanta in the NLCS.
Another aspect of the value Melancon has provided in Atlanta is his role as a veteran leader on this team. For the second straight year, especially in the playoffs, Melancon was a source of fun, positivity, support, and confidence. It certainly seems as if he has cherished his time with this team, and same can be said for the team in terms of Melancon. For whatever value you place on that, he certainly has been a great addition to the culture of a clubhouse that loves to have fun and support each other.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Though Melancon’s counting stats remained strong in 2020, he did experience some noticeable declines in his supporting numbers. His K/9 rate dropped from 9.09 in 2019 (second highest of career) to 5.56 in 2020 (lowest since 2009 rookie campaign). While the value of his four-seam fastball did improve from 2019, his cutter and curve dropped, and his velocity on his fastball was the lowest of his career.
Overall, the impact on Melancon’s numbers seemed to indicate he was a bit luckier than usual, as his FIP (3.72) and xFIP (4.42) were at their highest marks since 2012 and 2009, respectively. Simply put, Melancon was easier to hit and the effectiveness of his secondary pitches dropped in 2020. This likely is not all that surprising since Melancon is now 35 years old, and will be 36 before Opening Day in 2021. While he certainly can still get the job when called upon, he seems to be at a higher risk of running into trouble than he has been in the past.
OUTLOOK FOR 2021:
Overall, Melancon clearly added value on and off the field for the Braves in 2020. As a result, he now enters free agency in a much better position that some may have anticipated would be the case as he was fighting back from injury during his time in San Francisco. With his experience as a closer, Melancon may be attractive to other teams as a ninth inning or back end of the bullpen option and could receive a lucrative offer as a result.
However, it is very likely Melancon will have a preference to stay with the Braves. It seems likely Atlanta would be open to him returning. If Melancon gets an offer for multiple years with an average annual salary above $8M, it may be wise for Atlanta to avoid matching that type of commitment. However, if the Braves could resign Melancon for a similar contract to what they gave Chris Martin (two years, $14M), or could structure it like they did Darren O’day’s contract with a one year deal followed by a team option, a return to the Braves could make sense. With his declining effectiveness, the first year could be in the $7M-9M range with team option being for a bit lower.
Overall, while it would be smart for the Braves to not ignore Melancon’s age and or signs that his pitching talent is not what it once was, it is also important to value the stability he has provided the bullpen and the support he has provided his team during his time in Atlanta. If the financial figures make sense, it seems both Melancon and the Braves would both embrace and benefit from another run(s) at a title or two in the near future.