They charge through the bullpen gate, often to the sounds of heavy metal fanfare, always to embrace the pressure.
Yet most of the great closers in baseball history first slipped into the ninth inning through a side door.
Trevor Hoffman was an infielder who swung a light bat. Same with Joe Nathan. Mariano Rivera, a decent starting pitcher in the minors, had no hope to crack the Yankees rotation. Robb Nen’s shoulder couldn’t withstand throwing 100 pitches. Troy Percival squatted behind the plate before he squinted from the mound. Kenley Jansen shed his chest protector, too.
So many of baseball’s elite closers are made, not born. They are often failed or middling starters, too wild to be effective or possessing a mastery of too few pitches to survive facing a lineup multiple times. They often tote medical files that contain more red flags than a slalom course. No Little League coach takes the strongest arm on his team and reserves it for three measly outs.
For so many who earned legendary status in baseball’s most pressurized role, becoming a closer was a career save.
“I guess that makes me a little different,” Mark Melancon said.
The Giants, who coughed up a franchise-record 32 save opportunities last season, were desperate to acquire a closer this past winter. Rather than find one through improvisation, they gave $62 million to a rare soul who came to the role straight out of central casting.
Melancon began life as a bullpen fireman while a freshman at the University of Arizona, mostly because the Wildcats needed a closer and freshmen do as they’re told. He performed well in the College World Series.
The next year, Arizona coach Andy Lopez planned to move Melancon to his rotation. He recruited a junior college kid to handle the ninth. The kid didn’t make his grades.
“I had already done it,” Melancon said, “so I kept doing it.”
He is still doing it, now at an elite level.
Over the past four seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals, Melancon has recorded 147 saves in 162 chances. But it’s his rate statistics that show why Manager Bruce Bochy lobbied so hard to sign him, and why he has become one of the most dependable closers in this decade.
Over the past four seasons, he has a 1.80 ERA, allowed 0.91 baserunners per inning and 0.3 home runs per nine innings — a combination that no Giants closer in franchise history (minimum 25 saves) has matched in a single season.
Melancon uses his cutter to keep the ball off the barrel and get efficient contact outs. He’ll miss his share of bats, too. But mostly, he sucks the drama out of the ninth inning. Brian Wilson might have embodied “Torture Baseball” for the Giants in 2010. Melancon would rather just throw 10 pitches and shake hands.
“I thought it was great when the Giants signed Mark,” Nen said. “He’s got great stuff, he’s got great makeup, he’s gone out and proven himself over the last three or four years.
“It’s going to make Boch’s job a little bit easier. He can throw him out there and say, ‘Here’s my guy, try to beat him.’ He’s going to be fun to watch.”
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There was a time when Melancon hoped to be used in the rotation. He knew that relievers usually didn’t get drafted high or receive jackpot contracts down the line. Huston Street was a rare exception as a first-round pick who was used as a college closer. Drew Storen was another. The Giants once took Rice closer David Aardsma 22nd overall in the 2002 draft.
But wherever Melancon went, his team had a need in the ninth inning. So he put team first, and pitched last.
And he was too darn good to move.
“I heard it from every pitching coach I had,” said Melancon, who grew up in the Denver area. “They would always say, ‘You know, I like how big your repertoire is, I like how you know how to pitch, I like the way you go about it, and I’d love to see you as a starter. But I just don’t want to slow you down. I don’t want you to be here longer than you need to. You’re just progressing too fast.”
Melancon, 32, had to overcome a lost year to Tommy John surgery in the Yankees system, which wasn’t much of a surprise. The only reason he had slipped to them in the ninth round of the 2006 draft (four rounds after current Giants teammate George Kontos) was because of elbow concerns.
That interruption aside, Melancon has been one of the most durable and in-demand relievers in the major leagues. He has been traded four times, from the Astros to the Red Sox to the Pirates, who dealt him to the Nationals at the Aug. 1 trade deadline last season.
The Giants tried hard for him at the trade deadline — not hard enough, GM Bobby Evans later lamented — and they wanted to ensure they didn’t miss out again. So after years of eschewing the big-dollar deals for a closer, they gave Melancon a four-year contract that set a record for relievers before Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen topped it later in the winter.
It’s the first time the Giants have given a multiyear deal to attract a free-agent closer since the winter prior to the 2005 season, when they gave Armando Benitez a disastrous, three-year, $21 million contract.
But after the season the Giants had, the alternative to signing Melancon would’ve cost them even more dearly. Of their 32 blown saves, nine came in September and two more came in their N.L. Division Series loss to the Chicago Cubs.
They lost a staggering nine games in which they led entering the ninth inning, not counting the unthinkable: the three-run lead they blew to the Cubs while losing Game 4 to send them home.
“It takes a tough club to bounce back and be resilient, and you have to be,” Bochy said. “We can say all those things. But when you get enough body blows and lose enough games late, it will affect a ballclub. It does. It can shake their confidence and have them thinking, ‘Hey, at any time, we can lose this game.’ That’s the last thing you want to be going through their heads.”
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Mariano Rivera became baseball’s all-time saves leader on the strength of one pitch. For decades, and with seasons on the line, hitters knew his cut fastball was coming. They still couldn’t get the barrel on it.
The cutter transformed Melancon from a strong-armed reliever drafted by the Yankees to one of baseball’s best, too.
But he didn’t learn the pitch from the master. It began with Billy Connors, a Yankees pitching coach, and continued after he was traded to the Astros. Another reliever, Brandon Lyon, showed Melancon a different grip that allowed him to repeat the pitch.
But he considered it his fourth-best pitch, and relievers have a mantra: Don’t get beat with anything other than your best. So he kept the cutter tucked in a back pocket in Houston, and then following a trade to the Red Sox.
Melancon’s 2012 season in Boston stands as his career outlier. He had a 6.20 ERA in 41 games and never got comfortable while pitching for manager Bobby Valentine. Three games into the season, he had a loss (in the opener) and a blown save.
Then came the lowest point: an appearance in an 18-3 loss to the Texas Rangers in which Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz took him deep. He became just the eighth pitcher in 90 years to give up three home runs without recording an out. He had given up homers to five of the 18 batters he faced. He knew before walking into Valentine’s office after the game that he would be shipped to the minors.
“For me, that was the best year ever,” Melancon said. “It was horrible in so many ways, but now I look at it and I’m like, ‘That was the girlfriend I’m glad I didn’t marry.’
“My back was against the wall, I had to go to Triple-A for a month, and I knew if I didn’t perform, I could be done. And sometimes when you’re put in that position, in anything in life, it’s put up or shut up, and this is your time to shine and you know what’s at stake. I still use that and still think about that, and it’s awesome.”
The other reason he is thankful for his struggles: It led to a trade to the Pirates, and the final component in the evolution of his cutter. He needed someone to believe in it.
He found his champion in Pirates catcher Russell Martin.
“He was the biggest help,” Melancon said. “It’s, ‘OK, I have this weapon,’ but I didn’t really know how to use it. The confidence factor, the knowledge factor , the stubbornness, those things are what he taught me. It was just having someone back there saying, ‘Hey, listen, this is awesome, let’s use it.’ The confidence I have in that pitch, he gave that to me.”
In return, Melancon has imbued his teammates with confidence that their good works won’t go unrewarded.
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Trevor Hoffman ranks second all time with 601 saves. He racked up most of them while pitching for Bochy in San Diego.
Melancon’s fastidious routine off the field and his mentality on the mound allow Bochy to make an easy connection to Hoffman. They are both University of Arizona products. They even race to the mound to the hard edge of AC/DC, although Melancon prefers “Thunderstruck” to “Hell’s Bells.”
Mostly though, they both provide the same sense of security.
“It takes a certain player and mentality to handle that role, and it shows they’re valued with the contracts they’re getting,” Bochy said. “I can speak from first-hand experience. I had the best closer in the game, and the one year we didn’t have him because he was on the DL, it was a struggle for us. It’s just not that easy to fill that spot.”
There were plenty of familiar faces to welcome Melancon to Scottsdale this spring. He played with Hunter Pence in Houston. He worked out with right-handed prospect Tyler Beede this past offseason. His former Arizona Wildcats catcher, Nick Hundley, signed with the Giants a few weeks before players reported to camp.
He didn’t need much time to win over everyone else.
“What I’ve noticed is he’s very methodical,” catcher Buster Posey said. “He’s got a plan each day. There’s no wasted time with him. That’s probably one of the reasons he’s been so successful. He’s so diligent with his preparation.”
A closer’s routine is about more than staying in good physical condition. It’s a mental necessity.
“You rely on that routine,” Hoffman said. “There are times you really need it. It can be a crazy position, and I found that the more you can control the process and the preparation, the better you can handle the emotions when one doesn’t go your way. You can fall back on that routine.”
Starting pitchers have their routine, too. Melancon is no longer curious about it. He found his calling earlier than most.
“You know, there’s something about having to be on point from the very first pitch,” Melancon said. “If you told a starter, ‘Every start, you’ve got to be perfect from that first inning,’ it would change things.
“I’ll hear starters say, ‘Oh, I should have known, in the bullpen I was missing here or there. I was able to make an adjustment in the third inning.’ And … I mean, third inning? I don’t have a third inning. It’s just a different position, and I love it.”
Hoffman presented Melancon with his namesake award as the game’s top reliever at the 2015 World Series in Kansas City. He reached out to congratulate him after he signed with the Giants. Hoffman let Melancon know that he was about to pitch for a manager who “has a way of letting people be themselves.”
Hoffman laughed when it was mentioned that Melancon might always be the second best reliever to come out of the University of Arizona.
“Oh, no, hopefully he’ll be No.1,” Hoffman said. “I think he might be already. I don’t have claim to that title. I mean, I was an infielder there.”