Chilling in the bullpen. (photo by Gage Matthews)

A Rollercoaster Named Mendoza

Mendoza walks in. (photo by Gage Matthews)

Luis Mendoza, the Mexican lord of pitching, has gone through a lot in his professional baseball career. He’s experienced the ups and, more often, the downs of pitching in the minors and majors. He’s been moved around numerous times and been bounced from the minors to the big leagues and back again. Mendoza has truly seen quite a bit.

So, I think you’ll understand when I say that his story is maybe my feel-good story of the year. With all due respect to Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur, and the rookies, Mendoza’s twisted tale was able to put a smile on my face Sunday night. Let me tell you why that is and where he fits in as the team moves forward.

*This song is a good accompaniment to the story. You may recognize it…*

Mendoza was signed out of Mexico as an undrafted free agent in 2000 by the Boston Red Sox. He was signed as a 16-year-old. He likely participated in instructional leagues and such in 2000 and 2001, making his professional debut in the rookie league in 2002 as an 18-year-old righty starter. He had a tough beginning, compiling a 4.35 ERA and 3.90 K/9 innings through 378.2 innings from 2002-05. After having an especially tough year in 2005 at high-A Wilmington, then in the Red Sox organization, Mendoza was placed on waivers and claimed by the Padres. Two starts later, Mendoza had a 9.28 ERA in 10.2 innings and was reclaimed by Boston. He would finish that season with a 6.58 ERA over 24 starts, one relief appearance, and 130 innings pitched.

Talk about a rough start to your career.

Optimism for Mendoza was at an all-time low, but he kept at it and shot out of the gate in 2006, posting a 3.14 ERA in 13 starts for Wilmington. He was promoted to AA Portland and again struggled following the promotion. After a trade to Texas, he joined AA Frisco, but his fate would be the same. He ended the 2006 season with a 6.98 ERA at AA, though he was given 16 starts there.

You just have to persevere sometimes.

Mendoza would perform well for Frisco in 2007, going 15-4 with a 3.93 ERA in 25 starts (three complete games) and a relief appearance. Though his strikeout and walk rates were about normal for his career, his WHIP dropped significantly. That team also included now-major-leaguers Chris Davis, Brandon Boggs, John Mayberry, and Travis Metcalf while Taylor Teagarden caught behind the dish. Whether these players and others combined to give Mendoza solid defense or he simply gave up fewer hits, something about his pitching was successful that season.

Signed a ball for this happy KC fan. (photo by Gage Matthews)

It was so successful, in fact, that Texas called him up from AA. Mendoza’s debut was a start against Oakland, but it didn’t get too far. That ne’er do well Nick Swisher hit a liner that ricocheted off Mendoza’s kneecap, forcing him out of the game after the second inning. Not to fear, however, as he would get two more starts and three more relief appearances, earning his first major league win on September 21, 2007, in a start against Baltimore. He would finish with a 2.25 ERA in his six major league games, allowing only four runs in 16 innings.

All of this success earned Mendoza a spot with the big league club to start 2008. But Mendoza can’t seem to have a stretch of good fortune, and he gave up 16 runs in 9.2 innings over his first three starts. After being pulled following 1.2 innings against the Tigers on April 23, in which he gave up 5 runs (2 earned), Mendoza experienced shoulder inflammation and was placed on the 15-day DL. As he had never been injured, Mendoza was understandably upset:

“I wasn’t very comfortable out there. My arm felt weak. It has been that way for the last couple of outings. I feel OK when I warm up, but after the first inning I feel the weakness in my arm… I’m concerned because I’ve never been injured before.” from this.

Following one rehab start for Frisco and eight for AAA Oklahoma (in which he had a 5.20 ERA), Mendoza returned to the Rangers, but would finish with another bad season. As a starter, things were especially bad. In his 11 starts, he compiled a 9.40 ERA. Still, his 6.87 ERA as a reliever wasn’t especially inspiring, but he did strike out two more batters per nine innings in that role.

Where did that put Mendoza? Back in AAA. After starting the 2009 season in Oklahoma as a 25-year-old starter, he earned a moment back in Texas. And in that one-inning moment, Mendoza gave up four runs on a walk and two hits, one of which was a home run.

Back to Oklahoma.

All things fair, he pitched reasonably well in 2009. Well enough that Texas…traded him to the Royals for cash on April 2, 2010. And the Royals loved Mendoza so much that he immediately took a spot on the major league roster. That would only last about two weeks, covering four outings that totaled four innings. In those four innings, Mendoza gave up 10 runs on three walks and ten hits, four of which were homers.

Back to AAA. At least it was a new venue in Omaha.

Mendoza would have another very normal season in 2010, finding himself with a 4.10 ERA in 22 starts and two relief appearances (131.2 innings). He continued to stay healthy, but was having more trouble than ever striking batters out and never earned a promotion. That continued to 2011, when he would be in the shadows behind the likes of Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, shining prospects of the Royals’ top-rated farm system.

Well, we all know how that turned out. Montgomery had a tough season and Duffy was promoted, leaving Mendoza to carry much of the weight as an Omaha starter. After being spurned from the Futures Game at the K, Mendoza started 18 games and made 15 relief appearances. He ended the season with a 2.18 ERA in 144.1 innings even though his K/BB was the lowest it’s been since 2004. Mendoza even threw a no-hitter on July 18 (second of his professional career). Still, Mendoza made two starts in the PCL postseason. In total, he pitched 14 innings, giving up two runs on eight hits and striking out 12. It was the defining moment of a season in which he was named the PCL Pitcher of the Year. Soon after that second start, Mendoza was promoted to Kansas City, where we all debated the results.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been both surprised and impressed. Mendoza came to the Royals and threw two starts over 14.2 innings, giving up 11 hits and just two earned runs. He’s even racked up .670 WPA in that time. Since one of those starts was against red-hot Detroit, it’s been especially impressive. He earned his first win since August 3, 2008. And he’s earned some attention from the media, which hasn’t occurred due to the playoff races. But that’s why I wanted to give him that due attention.

How has Mendoza achieved this, at least since his promotion? Well, he doesn’t throw heat. He never really has, but where his fastball used to average about 92 MPH in relief over the past few years, it has been at 90.8 MPH in his two starts this season. And Mendoza has thrown that fastball quite a bit. In fact, about 70% of his pitches have been fastballs, up from 66% previously. But the big change from the past to now is his breaking pitches and their effectiveness.

Mendoza used to use his slider as his out pitch. It ended in about 15% whiffs when he used it, which was far greater than any of his other pitches. Now, Mendoza leans less on that and more on his changeup and curveball, both of which have induced at least 16% whiffs. His changeup is 7.4 MPH slower than his fastball, on average, and that can be used to really, well, change things up on hitters. His curveball, however, is a big looping pitch with a completely different spin angle than the other four pitches he uses. It has the most dive and lateral movement of any of his pitches and is 9.4 MPH slower than his fastball, making it difficult to square up on. If you’ve watched his starts, you’ve likely seen it. I have one in mind that he nailed over the outside corner against a Detroit batter, freezing him for a strikeout. It was pretty impressive and nasty.

He sure looks like a different pitcher to me. I think most would agree. But what does that mean for the future?

Well, as much as I’ll root for the guy, I really can’t see him as an integral part of the rotation. His .239 BABIP in his two starts is, well, unrealistic, just as his .353 in his four appearances last season was just as much of an aberration. Even so, his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 1.43 is appealing and useful. For the record, that number is the highest of any Royals starter this season, so take that into account. And when you induce that many ground balls, your BABIP is likely going to be lower, as grounders are more often fielded for outs than liners to the outfield.

So, Mendoza provides insurance. If someone is injured, he can take starts. If young guys need to be sent down, he can take their place. And he’s very cheap, so it’s not like keeping him around damages the club in any way. If he repeats what he’s done, then fantastic. If not, no harm done. This is really another situation where the Royals can’t be hurt too badly in either way. He’ll likely return and get a shot out of Spring Training. With Everett Teaford, Vin Mazzaro, Sean O’Sullivan, and others lined up to compete as well, it could be a tough battle for one or two rotation spots.

Keep an eye on him, though. And follow him on Twitter. He’s a good guy and I’ve definitely enjoyed watching him pitch this year. I never thought I’d say that, but I’m glad I get to. Just have to be happy for him.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Kansas City Royals KC Luis Mendoza MLB Royals

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