Now that we’ve got the CBA more or less on the books and the possibility of a labor stoppage off the radar, the stove is fully heated and cooking with the MLB Winter Meetings underway. Yesterday, in the span of just a few hours, it was announced that the NL West rivals who both came up short against the Cubs made a couple of big moves to shore up their pitching next season.
The Dodgers struck first, signing Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million deal and then the Giants made their move, signing Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal. While neither move came as a particular surprise, given that ye ol’ rumor mill had been churning ‘em out about both these signings, both moves are interesting and risky, albeit in different ways, so let’s take a look at each in turn.
Hill, who will turn 37 during Spring Training next year, was one of the best stories in baseball this past year. After all, it’s not all that often that we see a starting pitcher finally break out ten years after making his major league debut. On the strength of his excellent curveball, which, according to PITCHf/x, Hill turned to more often than anyone else in baseball in 2016, he was unquestionably one of the best pitchers in baseball this past season.
Hill’s ERA+ (187) would have been the second best in baseball and only one point behind leader Kyle Hendricks if he had pitched enough innings to qualify. His FIP (2.39) was the 4th best in baseball among pitchers with 110 innings pitched. His HR/9 (0.33) was the best in baseball with the same innings constraint.
Obviously, the elephant standing in the corner coughing very loudly here is trying to get us to pay attention to the fact that Hill only pitched 110 innings. After a promising start to his career, highlighted by 2007, where he pitched 195 innings to the tune of a 118 ERA+, he’s dealt with numerous different injuries and undergone multiple surgeries. From 2008 to 2014, Hill pitched a total of 182 MLB innings, so there is certainly cause for durability concerns when you’re talking about a pitcher of Hill’s age. There’s also another cause for concern in one area going forward even if Hill remains healthy. His league-leading HR/9 stat rode in on the back of a 4.2 HR/FB% which is miles ahead of anything Hill has done in the past and is basically unsustainable for any pitcher in the long term.
It needs to be noted that the health issue that limited Hill to 110 innings in 2016 was a blister, not a shoulder or an elbow issue, so that’s not as big of a concern going forward. Hill will, however, be almost 40 when the contract is over and done with. I’m in my mid-30s and currently sitting in front of a computer feeling like an old man with an aching back, carpal tunnel and some tennis elbow acting up, so I can’t even imagine what it must be like to throw a baseball over and over again at that age. Whether Hill will be able to or not, the thing about the contract is that the Dodgers aren’t paying Hill so much that he needs to pitch 200 innings a year to be valuable to the team.
Grade for Dodgers: B+
The Dodgers have made a recent pattern with their pitchers of going after high-risk, high-reward pitchers and this appears to be just another example of that strategy in action. Sure, this is a lot of money committed to a pitcher who might very well have health issues next season, or the season after that, or the season after that. But it’s also an awful lot less money than the Dodgers would give to a pitcher who is putting up numbers like Hill with a healthy track record. In an extremely iffy market for free agent pitchers, the Dodgers are definitely gambling, but it’s a smart risk on their part, as Hill can serve up a few more dingers than he did this year and miss some time while still providing value to his team.
Grade for Hill: A-
As mentioned above, Hill’s story is a great one. He’s finally getting paid after working so hard over so many years before he found success and that’s before you even get to his personal story and coming back from the loss of his infant son. He’s going to a team that obviously isn’t counting on him to throw 600 innings over the next three seasons, so there’s definitely some value in that, too. Oh, and the obvious part about being a player on a team that just keeps on winning its division.
While the Dodgers were busy adding yet another pitcher with question marks to their collection of pitchers with question marks, their upstate rivals were busy, too, working to solve a problem that plagued them last year and haunts the dreams of every Giants fan: the bullpen.
We checked in on the Giants early in the season last year and were worried, but were also cautiously optimistic that things might not be as bad as they seemed. Well, it turned out that they were actually worse than we thought, as the Giants led baseball in blown saves (30), came in 25th in the Clutch stat (-1.73) and in a three-way tie for 21st place in fWAR (2.1).
While it’s stupid to judge an entire bullpen based on an individual stat, the Giants’ epic bullpen collapse in the postseason in an elimination game against the Cubs basically all but guaranteed that the Giants would break with their tradition of not going after the biggest free agent relievers and would be in on one of the best closers available this offseason, whether it was Melancon, Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman.
Melancon was not the flashiest of those three pitchers, even if he was more quietly very, very good. From 2013 through last season, Melancon leads all pitchers who have pitched at least 250 innings with an ERA of 1.80. If we limit it to qualified relievers, over that some time period, he’s 4th in fWAR (7.9), behind Chapman, Jansen and Dellin Betances.
For all that we’ve said about Melancon’s talents, there’s cause for concern that isn’t related just to the sheer amount of money that the Giants are throwing at their new closer. Melancon has lost some velocity, which is probably responsible for a slight decline in his strikeout rates. Then again, his strikeout rates weren’t what made Melancon a closer in the first place, as he’s an elite practitioner of the groundball-inducing arts and this, along with his excellent control, might position him to age better than if he were a fireball-spewing monster in the Chapman mold.
Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see what Chapman and Aroldis sign for to fully gage the dollar amount the Giants spent here, but they also just helped set the market for the elite closers still on the market, which is now a very, very expensive market to frequent. The $62 million that Melancon will make (assuming he doesn’t opt out, and more on that in a moment) is now the biggest contract ever given out to a reliever, surpassing Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million deal, and is just crazy money for a reliever. But, after what we saw with Andrew Miller this past season, and with closers of the quality of this free agent class hitting the market, we knew some big contracts were looming.
One very interesting part of the contract is the fact that Melancon can opt out after two years in San Francisco. The Giants are obviously big fans of the opt-out after doing the same thing with Johnny Cueto last season, who will certainly opt out after next year if he has another season like his 2016. While some folks might get upset that Cueto won’t be around anymore if he keeps pitching like he does, the fact that the Giants won’t be on the hook for Cueto’s next four years, which are far more likely to feature his decline, is definitely a benefit for the Giants. The same is true for Melancon here: if he puts up a couple of excellent years in San Francisco and then bolts for more money elsewhere, that’s a good thing for the Giants, as it’s much more likely that the two following years will be less kind to Melancon.
Grade for Melancon: A+
Melancon just made the most money that a closer has ever made in free agency. Not only that, but he got a no-trade clause and an opt-out after two years, so he can do this whole thing again in 2018 and make even more money if he’s still pitching successfully. And if he’s not, well, he’s still taken care of for quite a while.
Grade for Giants: B-
While the caveats that also make the contract a great one for Melancon could also be seen to hurt the Giants, at least you can make the argument that the opt-out makes this deal a little better on their end. Obviously, the worst case scenario for the Giants is that Melancon stumbles out of the gate and San Francisco is on the hook for an elite closer for four years with nothing to show for it. That’s at least unlikely, though, given Melancon’s track record over the past four years.
The Giants may have paid through the nose to have the ninth inning locked down, but you can’t really blame them after the tire fire that was their bullpen in 2016 and was on full display during the death throes of the #EvenYear. There’s obviously an opportunity cost of spending this much money, as it will certainly limit the Giants’ ability to spend on other positions over the next couple of years (in the best case scenario), while Melancon only pitches an inning every other game, but it’s also hard to blame the organization for fixing its biggest problem, even if it was expensive. But this was an awful lot of money to throw at the problem and if the rumors are true and the bullpen moves are over, the Giants certainly have all their eggs in one basket. It’s not a wrong move, and this is certainly where the market was heading, it’s just a risky one, even if it’s a risk worth taking.