For the San Francisco Giants, the 2016 season was a roller coaster. There were ups and downs, twists and turns, and the driving force behind the chaos was the instability of the back end of the bullpen. Bruce Bochy simply could not mix and match his way through the season as he had done in the past.
However, after the first half of the season, this problem had been masked by timely hitting and many strokes of luck. So much luck, in fact, that the Giants held the best record in baseball heading into the second half. What happened over the next 80 games is something every Giants fan would like to forget.
Santiago Casilla, the closer for most of the season, continued to blow saves at an ugly rate and finished the year with a league-leading nine blown saves. Bochy, aware that Casilla had become unfit to close games, started trying out different players in that role.
Hunter Strickland, the flamethrower who will be remembered most for giving up all those home runs during the Giants’ 2014 postseason run, was given eight opportunities to get the final three outs. He blew five of them. Cory Gearrin had seven tries. He blew four. Left-handed specialist Javier Lopez had four chances. He blew three. George Kontos and Josh Osich were each given three shots. They both blew all of them. Finally, there was Sergio Romo.
The same Sergio Romo who had closed out the 2014 World Series and had been the closer for the two years before 2016. Well, apparently Bochy had lost faith in him because he only gave Romo four chances at shutting the door. And all Romo did with that was convert those opportunities at a 100% rate.
That’s right, amidst the Giants epic bullpen collapse of 2016 there was a savior, waiting in arms, to be called upon and lead the Giants to postseason glory. But no, instead of calling upon Romo, Bochy persisted in his search for a new closer.
Now, I’m sure Bochy had his reasons for not choosing Romo. Whether it was age, injury or something else, Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti probably knew what they were doing. If there’s one thing Giants fans have learned to do over the past half decade, it’s to trust Bruce Bochy.
But there were stretches during that second half where it felt like every game was blown in the ninth. Lead after lead squandered, and it all came to a fever pitch in game four of the NLDS against the Cubs.
Heading into the top of the ninth, the Giants held a 5-2 lead and were one game away from forcing a winner-take-all game five at Wrigley.
Bochy sent Romo to close it out, but he gave up a double to Ben Zobrist that drove in a run, making it 5-3. Bochy, feeling the pressure, then replaced Romo with trade deadline acquisition Will Smith, who promptly gave up a two-run single that tied the game. Bochy made yet another change, putting in Strickland in the last ditch effort to salvage the game. Strickland allowed a base hit to Javier Baez, putting the Giants in a one-run hole and giving all the momentum to the Cubs. As we know the Giants went on to lose the game and subsequently the series.
For fans, watching that last inning felt like deja vu. It had been happening all season, and in some ways, it was fitting that their greatest weakness caused the Giants greatest collapse.
If anything good came out of the 2016 season, it was the message that was sent to the Giants front office brass: a new closer needs to be signed. It seems like they received that message loud and clear, as former Nationals closer Mark Melancon was inked to a four-year, $62M deal. Melancon brings much-needed stability to the back end of the bullpen, hopefully filling the Giants biggest need and making them contenders once again.
Melancon has been one of the league’s elite closers over the past few years, posting a save percentage over 89 percent in every season since 2013. The best part about the signing is that the closer role was really the only weakness of the Giants last year. Now that it is filled, the team is truly complete and ready to compete.
Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt and Eduardo Nunez lead a more than competent lineup, Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik create a gold glove duo up the middle, and Posey remains the stalwart behind home plate as a gold glove winner himself. All of that is excluding the superb starting rotation of Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore.
The Giants might have the best combination of pitching, hitting, defense and postseason experience in all of baseball leading up to the 2017 season. Gone will be the days of a closer-less Giants. Gone will be the days of ninth inning torture. Mark Melancon will be the hero of the ninth inning, leading the Giants to glory and maybe even an oh-so-rare odd year World Series title for the Giants.