It was about this time five years ago that Diamondbacks closer Fernando Rodney struggled badly enough to raise questions about his job security. The Diamondbacks were concerned enough to begin contemplating backup plans, but ultimately they stuck with the veteran closer. Rodney rewarded their faith, his ensuing run helping to fuel a playoff run.
Manager Torey Lovullo brought up that sequence of events on Friday when discussing the situation with this year’s closer, Mark Melancon.
“It’s not always perfect for closers,” Lovullo said. “They have great runs and they have runs where they have stuff not go their way.”
Melancon’s recent struggles do not appear as pronounced as Rodney’s were in 2017. He has been shakier than the Diamondbacks would like — he has been charged with four losses and owns a 6.75 ERA — but as far as closer crises go, the Diamondbacks are not yet there with Melancon.
That said, they might not be too far off — which, as it turns out, is how Melancon feels about the way he’s pitching. The results, he knows, are not great. His stuff is down. But he said he does not think a look at his numbers indicate how close he feels to getting himself right.
“Just always searching, always trying to get better,” he said. “That’s why I know I’ll bounce out of this. I’m not going to give up. I’m eager to get back out there. It’s not where I want to be, but it’s not going to keep me down.”
A year ago, Melancon led the majors with 39 saves, logging a 2.23 ERA in 64 2/3 innings for the San Diego Padres. The Diamondbacks gave him a two-year, $14 million deal in December to help stabilize what last year was a porous bullpen.
Melancon’s season already has had several turns. He was hit hard in spring training, then looked a bit shaky in his first few appearances. But after something clicked during the club’s first road trip of the season, Melancon proceeded to turn in six consecutive scoreless outings to end April.
Next came a trip to the COVID-19 injured list. He has not been as effective since returning, giving up runs in two of his four outings.
“I know how hard it is to take a week off and try to come back,” setup man Ian Kennedy said. “He was throwing great. His cutter was great. He was getting weak ground balls, weak contact. That’s kind of what you’ve seen from him the last couple years.”
Against the Rockies last week, Melancon leaned heavily on his curveball, giving four runs (three earned) on five hits despite not allowing that much hard contact. Facing the Marlins on Wednesday, he gave up four runs, this time leaning heavily on his cutter. The contact was louder, notably on a three-run home run by the Marlins’ Jazz Chisholm Jr.
Melancon, 37, has only four strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings, and his primary pitch, his cutter, is averaging just 90.3 mph, down from 92 mph last season.
“I’ve had some years where it’s been down early and it comes back,” Melancon said. “Why that is, I’m not sure. … I’ve never been a velocity guy, never concerned myself with velocity. But I understand there is a point to where it’s important. Having another one or two miles an hour harder would be a good thing.”
When Melancon was on the injured list, the Diamondbacks managed to stay afloat without him, though not without stretching their bullpen thin. It seems clear the Diamondbacks are best positioned when Melancon is throwing well, bumping the rest of their relievers down a notch in leverage roles.
“He definitely is important to how well we all throw the ball,” Kennedy said. “You have another guy in there, it just shortens the game up even more.”
On Wednesday, Lovullo dismissed the idea of giving Melancon a break from the closer’s role. He reiterated his faith in Melancon getting back on track, saying he needs to make adjustments to better command his cutter.
And he pointed to Melancon’s experience and demeanor as reasons why he thinks he will figure things out.
“He’s so professional you don’t know if he’s having a good or a bad day,” Lovullo said. “He’s going to have the same conversation whether he saved a game or has given up runs. I think he’s in a really good spot because of the experience and the things he’s walked through in this game.”