After a bit of a hiatus, we continue our Seedlings to Stars South Atlantic League All-Star teams with the pitchers. The Sally League features as much velocity and plus pitches as any league in the minors, and even though the feel for pitching is rarely there with these pitchers, many pitchers in the league have enormous potential. We begin with the #5 starter on our SAL All-Star team, Roman Mendez, a pitcher who exemplifies this aspect of Sally League pitching.
Name: Roman Mendez
Age: Turns 22 in July
2011 Team: Hickory Crawdads (TEX)
Basic Pitching Stats: 9-1 record, 3.31 ERA, 130 strikeouts (10.0 K/9), 45 walks (3.5 BB/9), 7 homers allowed (0.5 HR/9) in 20 starts, 6 relief appearances, and 117 IP
Mendez was signed by the Boston Red Sox in July of 2007 for $125,000 from the “City of Shortstops” in the Dominican Republic, San Pedro de Macoris. After lighting it up in the Dominican Summer League in 2008 (2.65 ERA, 2.71 FIP), the Red Sox brought Mendez to America, but after dominating to the tune of a 1.99 ERA and a 2.29 FIP in the American debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2009, Mendez struggled at the Short Season-A and Low-A levels in the Red Sox system in 2010 before being traded to the Texas Rangers as part of the Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade in July of 2010.
Roman Mendez has a power arm and used it to overpower Sally League hitters, posting a 10.0 K/9 and a nice 3.06 FIP on the season. Mendez fastball consistently registered in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 99 in 2011, but the problem was that his fastball is very straight. Mendez fastball features some upward movement, but it features little to none movement away from a righty batter like a regular fastball from a right-hander should have. Mendez succeeded because of his outstanding velocity that Sally League hitters had a lot of trouble making contact on. But when hitters did make contact, they hit the ball hard. Mendez also features a low to mid-80’s slider that has flashed plus potential, but he had trouble locating the pitch and even when he did, hitters could sit on it if they knew they could at least foul off the fastball. His third pitch was a high-80’s changeup that remains a below-average pitch. The results looked fine and even his peripherals were nice, but the underlying stats are a huge reason for concern.
Mendez’s 3.06 FIP was well below the 3.78 Sally League FIP, and his 3.33 SIERA according to Minor League Central was even farther below the league SIERA of 3.98. But missing from that duo of sabermetric pitching stats, is xFIP which exchanges home runs from the FIP formula for expected home runs assuming 1 of every 10 flyballs should be a homer. Mendez’s xFIP was 3.89, not too far above the league xFIP of 4.11. Mendez allowed just 7 home runs all season, but hitters were able to square up his pitches. 62.5% of the batted balls he allowed were hit in the air compared to the 52.8% league average. He allowed a .347 BAbip on the season compared to the .314 league average despite his flyball tendencies, but it really wasn’t a fluke. Hitters were hitting him hard and he was lucky he didn’t allow more extra-base hits. He allowed an 18.6% line drive percentage compared to the 16.4% league average, yet his extra-base hits to line drives ratio was just .59 compared to the league average of .67. And then his XBH’s to flyballs ratio was .25 compared to the .30 league average. And the exclamation point was that he was extremely lucky in terms of allowing flyballs, 6.4% home runs to flyballs to the outfield ratio compared to the 9.1% league average despite his exorbitant flyball tendencies. With average luck, Mendez could have had a horrific season. Even though we know that pitchers don’t have an incredible amount of control on what happens after a hitter puts one of his pitches into play, the more a pitcher plays with fire, the more he’ll get burned. Mendez was lucky not to get burned.
Mendez had the nice combination of throwing a lot of pitches in the zone, 71.4% of his pitches compared to the 68.7% league average, and also getting swings and misses on strikes as hitters connected on just 50.4% of his pitches in the zone compared to the 58.3% league average. But wait a second- if Mendez threw an above-average amount of pitches in the zone, why did he walk 3.5 batters per 9 innings compared to the 3.3 league average? The reason was that hitters weren’t fooled by his pitches. Even if they weren’t making contact very much, they were able to identify his pitches extremely well. They swung at 87.5% of his pitches in the zone (89.4% average) and just 22.2% of his pitches out of the zone (24.6 % average). Overall, they swung at 68.8% of his pitches compared to the 69.0% league average. Hitters worked counts and waited for their pitch versus Mendez, and even though that strategy didn’t work very well, the only reason for that was that Mendez was lucky.
Roman Mendez has renewed confidence in himself after a nice season for Hickory in 2011. That might make a real difference on its own. But Mendez has a lot of things to work on.
Velocity is not enough to be a good pitcher as you get farther up the professional ranks. Mendez has an electric arm, but he has to work on getting more movement on his pitches. Right now, he really only his one plus pitch, his slider, but he needs to get more movement on his fastball to really maximize his slider’s sharp movement. His changeup is still a work in progress as well. Mendez is 21 and a half and he’s been a professional for 4 seasons. He’s still young, but he’s starting to run out of excuses. Maybe it’s time for a major change in his repertoire. We don’t hear about a combination of fastball-slider very often because they both move in the upward direction. The usual combinations are either fastball-curveball or sinker-slider. Look for the Rangers to try to teach Mendez a different fastball, probably a sinker or a cutter, so he can get more movement on his pitches and get the most out of his arsenal.
Mendez is 6-2, 180. The pitcher I’m thinking of comparing him to is 6-4, 230. But I’ll make the comparison anyway: Kyle Farnsworth. As a Rays fan, I vividly remember Farnsworth during his time on the Yankees when he was hitting 100 MPH yet still was an inconsistent middle reliever. Farnsworth also throws a nice slider and a halfway-decent changeup, but for a long time, he could not produce sustained success. But in 2011, he added a sinker and began throwing his cutter more often (see my article on that here) and all of a sudden he was a dependable closer for the first time. Farnsworth couldn’t figure out that he needed another pitch until he was well into his career. Mendez may very well end up in the bullpen, but if he can add a sinker and/or cutter now, he could still salvage his career as a starter, and even if he doesn’t he could be a very good late-inning reliever. The adjustment has to made before it’s too late.
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