SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Bruce Bochy, a .239 career hitter with three World Series rings as a manager, routinely receives baseball cards in the mail from fans in search of autographs. The San Francisco Giants media relations department dutifully passes them along, and occasionally the envelope will have a handwritten letter inside.
One particular note struck a chord with Bochy after the Giants’ season-ending 6-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. It came from a fan who thought Bochy, general manager Bobby Evans and team CEO Larry Baer weren’t displaying enough anguish in their end-of-season news conference. The observation resonated enough with Bochy that he felt compelled to write a response.
“I told the guy, ‘You don’t know how hard that was for me being a manager,’ ” Bochy said. “Unfortunately, in this game, you take those [losses] a lot harder than you enjoy the successful games. But we can’t beat ourselves up. We threw everything we had at them, and it didn’t work.”
Bochy has the disheartening game video and memories of a chaotic scorecard to prove it. He summoned five relievers in an attempt to protect a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning, and they combined to record one out before giving up four runs. Short of sending out an all-points-bulletin for former Giants closer Robb Nen, there was nothing more Bochy could have done.
When the Giants reflect on the crushing end to their 2016 season, the focus inevitably shifts to the back of the bullpen — a problem that Evans quickly moved to address this winter. In December, the Giants signed Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal in hopes that he’ll provide their most dominant closer presence since Brian Wilson was wrapping elastic bands in his beard and pumping mid-to-upper-90s heat on his way to three All-Star Games between 2008 and 2011.
“I watched [NLDS] Game 4, and you felt for everybody (in the bullpen). … When I was thinking about where to go, I looked at that as a positive in the sense that, ‘These guys have gone through some trials and it’s going to make them hungrier.'”
New Giants closer Mark Melancon
As Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti welcome Melancon to the mix, they’ll spend the next few weeks sorting through their middle relief and setup options. Hunter Strickland, Will Smith and Derek Law are the leading candidates to pitch the eighth inning for San Francisco, with lefties Josh Osich and Steven Okert and righties George Kontos and Cory Gearrin also in the mix for bullpen spots.
As spring training unfolds and the regular season progresses, Bochy will develop more of a feel for how his relief pieces mesh. He’ll better learn when to go with matchups, when to let certain relievers pitch multiple innings and when to trust his gut over the numbers.
“It makes it so much easier to run your bullpen when you’re so familiar with your guys,” Bochy said. “You know the roles they should be in, how to use them and how much to use them. And they know you and what to expect. I know I’ve been lucky to have so much continuity in that bullpen.”
Since the start of the Giants’ championship run in 2010, those questions had become second nature. Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla made a combined 1,789 appearances and collected a total of 12 championship rings in 2010, 2012 and 2014 before going their separate ways. Affeldt retired in 2015, and Lopez recently announced his retirement and is in San Francisco’s camp as a guest instructor this spring. Casilla signed with the Oakland Athletics in January, and Romo just agreed to a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As Melancon & Co. try to forge a new bullpen tradition, their immediate goal will be to erase the scars of 2016. The Giants went a sorry 43-for-73 in save opportunities and set a franchise record with those MLB-leading 30 blown saves. They lost a club record nine games in which they carried a lead into the ninth inning.
“It was a trying year for everybody,” said Bochy, with trademark understatement.
The Red Sox nabbed their ace and the White Sox made two huge trades, but there was another team that won the hot stove league by playing winter like a game of chess.
Expectations are high for the Braves’ Dansby Swanson, and Kyle Schwarber needs to show he can play in the Cubs’ outfield. Spring training wouldn’t be necessary if there weren’t battles to watch.
Matt Cain is part of the competition to be the Giants’ fifth starter.
Melancon, the designated savior, arrives with a reputation for consistency and resourcefulness. His 91.8 mph average fastball velocity in 2016 was pedestrian by closer standards, but he held opponents to a .204 batting average while throwing his cut fastball 63 percent of the time. The Giants made a failed attempt to acquire Melancon at the trade deadline in July, and he ultimately went to Washington for the stretch drive. But when Melancon filed for free agency in November, Evans quickly reached out to his agent, Mark Pieper, and found the interest was mutual.
“This is a team I’ve always looked up to and really enjoyed playing against and respected a lot,” Melancon said. “For some reason, deep down, I always felt the Giants would be a good fit for me if the time came and the possibility was there.
“I watched Game 4, and you felt for everybody [in the bullpen]. Really, when I was thinking about where to go, I looked at that as a positive in the sense that these guys have gone through some trials, and it’s going to make them hungrier. If you’re hungry and you’ve already won before — wow — watch out.”
Melancon already has a fan club of sorts in the clubhouse. Law, a Pittsburgh native, was working his way through the Giants’ system when Melancon was establishing himself as an All-Star closer in Pittsburgh. Law had a chance to attend some September games at PNC Park when the minor league season was over, and he developed an appreciation for Melancon’s focus and craftsmanship.
“I’ve always had admiration for him and the way he pitches,” Law said. “He’s a little different than a down-your-throat closer. He has a plan every pitch. When they zoom in on his face, you can see his focus and how much he’s thinking. I love that.”
Shortly after Melancon signed with the Giants, Law sent his new teammate a “welcome to San Francisco” text message. He was concerned he might have overstepped his bounds when 40 minutes passed without a reply. Then his cellphone buzzed and displayed Melancon’s number. The two relievers spent the next 30 minutes talking about pitching, San Francisco and their mutual excitement over pitching in San Francisco.
“Getting back to him 40 minutes later was a product of having three kids,” Melancon said, laughing. “He’s not there yet, so he doesn’t understand.”
In three and a half seasons with Pittsburgh, Melancon embraced a leadership role in the bullpen and found a novel way to promote esprit de corps. During a trip to New Zealand in 2011, he was on a cage-diving excursion with his wife when researchers encountered a great white shark and named it “Melancon.” The real Melancon returned home and christened the Pittsburgh bullpen the “Shark Tank,” while picking up the nickname “Mark the Shark.”
As fate would have it, the Giants are already well-stocked with cartilaginous fish. Outfielder Gregor (the White Shark) Blanco spent five seasons in San Francisco before leaving for Arizona as a free agent in January. And starter Jeff Samardzija has gone by the nickname “Shark” since his freshman year as a football and baseball star at Notre Dame. The good news is, he’s not territorial.
“We work with multiple sharks here,” Samardzija said. “Blanco was a type of shark. He must have been a white shark, obviously. I don’t necessarily have any specific genome. I’m not too defensive about the nickname. If somebody wants to steal it from me, I’m not going to be too opposed.”
Samardzija and Melancon’s other new teammates are about to discover they have quite an interesting guy in their midst. Melancon is constantly reading up on sports science and nutrition, and he wants to expand his already impressive travel resume by taking his family to Antarctica one day.
Melancon loves talking baseball, too. When informed that Law would like to pick his brain for insights on how to throw the cutter, he nods his head in assent. If the young guys are eager to learn, he’s happy to teach.
“We lost all those guys who are irreplaceable,” Law said. “But at the same time, he kind of fills that void. He’s been through a lot, and you can ask him some questions, which is nice.
“You come in this clubhouse, and you’ll find that there’s this Giants way — a Giants mold. He fits that to a ‘T.'”