Luis Mendoza embodies the pitching cliche.
The pitcher who reinvents himself.
Mendoza arrived in Kansas City just prior to the 2010 season when he was a late cut by the Texas Rangers. He opened the season in the majors and promptly did his best impersonation of an arsonist.
In the season’s third game, Brian Bannister squared off against Dontrelle Willis in a pitcher’s duel at the K. (WHAT?!?) With the Royals holding a 2-1 lead against the Tigers, Dusty Hughes started the eighth by walking Johnny Damon. That’s when Trey Hillman summoned Mendoza from the bullpen to face Magglio Ordonez, who rapped an infield single. That brought up Miguel Cabrera. After jumping ahead 0-2, Mendoza centered one and Cabrera deposited the pitch in the right field bleachers. Ballgame. (Hillman left Mendoza in for the rest of the inning and five batters in the ninth before executing a mercy pitching change. In the span of an inning, the Royals went from a one run lead to a three run deficit. While Hillman pulled a Todd Haley. I miss SABR Trey.)
Anyway, Mendoza made three more appearances for the Royals in relief, coughed up seven more runs and was exiled to Omaha for the rest of the summer. He pitched almost exclusively in the rotation in Triple-A and finished the year with a 4.10 ERA with a 4.0 SO/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. His FIP in Omaha was 4.48.
Those results led him to Omaha pitching coach Doug Henry who broke down Mendoza’s delivery. He adjusted his arm angle to release the ball on a higher plane which gave his fastball a little more sink. He also worked on developing a consistent delivery – something he apparently had difficulty accomplishing in the past.
The transformation was astounding.
Mendoza was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year for 2011, finishing the season with a 2.18 ERA with a 5.1 SO/9 and 3.4 BB/9. His final FIP over 144 innings was 3.80. He made 33 appearances for the Storm Chasers, with 18 starts. Included in his fine season was a no-hitter.
Once the Chasers were done with their post season, and with the Royals resting assorted starting pitchers down the stretch, Mendoza was rewarded for his Triple-A efforts with a recall to Kansas City.
Which brings us to…
September stats must be taken with a grain of salt.
Mendoza made two starts for the Royals. His first came against those nasty Tigers. Although they had clinched the Central by this point, they did open the game with a full strength lineup. Mendoza threw seven innings, surrendering two runs (one unearned) in leading the Royals to the win. He walked three, whiffed three and allowed 11 ground balls, 13 fly balls and five line drives. Mendoza retired the Tigers in order only once in his seven innings.
His next start was against a White Sox team that had clearly checked out from about August onward. In this start, he pitched into the eighth, gave up four strikeouts and two walks. He was charged with a run when Greg Holland allowed an inherited runner to score with two outs. Overall, Sox hitters hit 10 grounders, 12 fly balls and seven line drives.
This leads to…
Pitch to contact.
You can see from the two games and his minor league stats that Mendoza doesn’t miss a lot of bats. In the major league starts last September, he threw a total of 202 pitches and got a swing and a miss strike 10 times. He also surrendered 12 line drives in play. Yet he allowed no home runs and only 11 hits.
Again, we’re dealing with the small sample size here, but it’s not surprising Mendoza limited hitters to a .239 BABIP on an 89% contact rate. The results we saw from Mendoza were certainly possible (they happened, didn’t they?) yet over the course of 32 major league starts those results are unsustainable. Some will like to draw the comparison between Mendoza and Bruce Chen – another pitcher who tinkered with his delivery and who lacks the high strikeout totals. Close, but no cigar. Chen alters arm angles during the game. Mendoza doesn’t utilitze this trickery. And Chen’s contact rate over the course of the season was almost six percentage points lower. I like what Chen has done to revive his career, but with his ground ball rate combined with his contact rate, I’m not betting on him finishing with a sub 4 ERA again.
Mendoza, with the sinking action on his fastball, has the ability to get more ground balls than Chen, but misses fewer bats. If the Royals hand him over 30 starts, he won’t finish with a sub 4 ERA either. Over the last five years, 24 times has a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title whiffed 4.3 SO/9 or less. Six times, that pitcher led the league in hits allowed. Only twice did that pitcher post a sub 4 ERA. (One of them was John Lannan in 2009 whose 3.88 ERA matched his 3.88 SO/9. Paging Jayson Stark…) Two of those pitchers were on the Royals – Bannister and Mark Redman. Just to give you an idea of the quality of starters who populate this list.
I’m not assigning Mendoza a 4.3 SO/9 for a whole season based on just two starts. But his Triple-A strikeout rate since joining the Royals is 4.6 SO/9. And his career major league rate (including his two starts last September) is… 4.6 SO/9. So, the evidence is kind of strong this is who he is. Is it possible Mendoza can be a contributor? Sure. Just the numbers suggest that the odds of him being halfway decent are long.
In a perfect world Mendoza opens the year in Triple-A and is in the mix for emergency spot starter. He’s a guy who can fill in for a few starts in the back of the rotation. But if you’re counting on him to make quality starts for you throughout the season, you may as well book your reservation for the bottom half of the division.