More Words Than You’d Expect on the Cubs’ 10th-Round Pick

A few days ago, I shared KATOH’s thoughts on the college players who were drafted (and not drafted) in this year’s amateur draft. There were hundreds of them. Many of the players with very good projections went in the first round, including Nick Senzel, A.J. Puk and Cody Sedlock. But the player with the very best KATOH projection fell all the way to the 10th round. The end of the 10th round. That player is Dakota Mekkes, whom the Cubs drafted with the 314th-overall pick out of Michigan State.

Mekkes was straight up filthy this past season. Pitching in the Big 10, Mekkes struck out a remarkable 96 batters in just 57 innings without surrendering a single home run. The catch is that he pitched exclusively in relief — though he wasn’t used like a typical reliever, and actually pitched more like a starter in some cases. Mekkes averaged over two innings per appearance in relief, and frequently threw many more than that. Most notably, he tossed six shutout innings in an extra-inning game against Maryland. Unlike most college relievers, he wasn’t a one-inning guy, which helps explain why KATOH likes him more than most relievers.

Stuff-wise, Mekkes isn’t anything special, which explains why he fell all the way to the 10th round. Per Baseball America:

Mekkes’ fastball is fine, but it doesn’t have exceptional velocity — he’s 90-93 mph out of the bullpen and his slider earns fringe-average to average grades. He also infrequently uses a changeup that flashes average with late fade, but it’s more often is a below-average offering. But while Mekkes’ fastball has only average velocity, it plays as an above-average pitch because of Mekkes’ low arm slot, deceptive delivery and his ability to change a hitter’s eye level. One coach called Mekkes’ fastball a rise ball because of his ability to elevate up in the zone over a hitter’s hands. His slider also plays up because he can locate it and it plays well off of his fastball.

Not exactly a glowing review. “Fine, but” is a phrase scouts use to describe fringe big leaguers, not players they think will make a significant impact. In sum, Mekkes is a soft-tossing righty reliever with merely average secondary stuff who gets by on deception and command.

FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen reached a similar conclusion about Mekkes’ stuff, but offered an explanation for his gaudy numbers in a recent edition of FanGraphs audio. He noted that Mekkes is 6-foot-7 and “has some Carter Capps-esque elements to his delivery where he’s really launching hard off the mound and gets really tremendous extension out in front.” As a result, Mekkes’ effective velocity — how fast his pitches appear to be traveling — is likely a couple notches higher than his low-90s radar-gun readings. Eric also noted that Mekkes has some “start and stop” in his delivery, which also gives hitters trouble timing his pitches. He concluded that Mekkes was almost certainly a future reliever.

To help put Mekkes’ outrageous pitching performance in context, I searched for comparable college players in recent memory. Below are the players currently 27 or younger who recorded a regressed strikeout rate over 30% (Mekkes’ was 34%), and who averaged fewer than 20 batters per appearance (Mekkes averaged nine). Here are the pitchers who met those criteria since 2002 and have also played their age-27 seasons.

Pitchers with Similar College Stats to Dakota Mekkes
Year Pitcher BF/G Regressed K% WAR thru 27
2005 David Robertson 10 31% 5.9
2009 Drew Storen 6 32% 4.6
2002 Chad Cordero 7 31% 2.8
2005 Joey Devine 7 32% 1.5
2008 Robbie Weinhardt 8 31% 0.3
2005 John Gaub 7 33% 0.0
2008 Daniel Schlereth 6 31% 0.0
2008 Josh Fields 4 34% -0.3
2008 Scott Bittle 10 41% No MLB
2008 Jason Stoffel 6 34% No MLB
2007 Casey Weathers 6 33% No MLB
2009 Scott Bittle 13 31% No MLB
2005 Josh Schmidt 7 31% No MLB
2010 Scott Matyas 6 31% No MLB
Average 7 32% 1.9
Non-Injured Average* 7 32% 2.6
2016 Dakota Mekkes 9 34% ? (3.8 Proj.)
*Excludes Scott Matyas who retired shortly after college.

Several of the pitchers here never panned out, but that’s largely due to injury rather than poor performance. Bittle’s career was derailed by a torn shoulder capsule and Schlereth’s by a torn rotator cuff. Both Cordero and Gaub were undone by torn labrums. Devine and Weathers were never quite the same after Tommy John. Matyas opted to retire less than a month after he was drafted. Despite all that attrition, the majority of these pitchers went on to play in the majors, while a few made an impact there. This helps illustrate why KATOH’s so high on Mekkes.

As an alternative method for generating some comps, I looked around the league for current players who look like Mekkes. I started out with right-handed relievers over 6-foot-4 who have at least 20 innings to their name this year. Next, I limited the field to pitchers who averaged 90-93 mph with their fastball and threw a combination of fastball, slider, and changeup at least 95% of the time. I wound up with five pitchers.

Contemporary Pitchers with Similar Stuff to Dakota Mekkes
Pitcher IP ERA FIP WAR
Addison Reed 86 2.84 2.64 1.9
Jason Grilli 55 3.58 2.72 1.4
Mike Morin 62 5.49 3.86 0.8
LaTroy Hawkins 39 3.26 3.14 0.4
Steve Delabar 37 5.54 4.90 -0.3
Numbers since the start of 2015

None of those pitchers are stars, but they’ve all enjoyed stretches of effectiveness. They’ve all had their ups and downs, as relievers do. But Reed, Grilli, Hawkins and Delebar have each put up a 1+ WAR relief season in the past few years, while Morin has been one of the Angels’ more reliable relievers. Really no groundbreaking discovery here, other than that relievers with stuff similar to Mekkes’ have succeeded before. That’s reassuring, especially considering Mekkes’ stuff likely plays up due to his delivery.

As you’re certainly aware, a strong college performance doesn’t come close to guaranteeing success at higher levels. But certain characteristics — such as strikeout rate — are predictive of success in the majors. Mekkes posted one of the top strikeout rates in the country in one of the top college conferences in the country. My math says that bodes very well for his future.

It’s also important to keep in mind that my math doesn’t know everything. It doesn’t know that his stuff is unremarkable or that his numbers are almost entirely the result of his fooling inexperienced hitters. How well he’ll be able to fool better hitters remains to be seen, but considering every organization passed on him 10 times, it seems very few scouts are on board. I imagine the more analytically-minded teams were similarly intrigued by his college numbers, but moved him down their draft boards after they read the scouting reports.

It goes without saying that Mekkes almost certainly wasn’t, as KATOH suggests, the best college pitcher in the draft. KATOH should never be taken that literally, especially at the college level. But I’m a bit surprised that major-league baseball collectively drafted over 300 players before him. Just 16 10th-round picks since 2009 have even played in the majors — and that number includes Jon Gray, who fell for signability reasons (and wisely did not sign). The 10th round is largely reserved for borderline non-prospects, and I think Mekkes’ numbers make him much more than a borderline non-prospect. I’ll be watching closely as Mekkes works his way through the Cubs’ system. His raw stuff may be underwhelming, but his results have been too good to ignore.

We hoped you liked reading More Words Than You’d Expect on the Cubs’ 10th-Round Pick by Chris Mitchell!

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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free-range turducken
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free-range turducken

Kicking off a brand new drinking game: drink whenever johnforthegiants does any of the following:

1. Complains about the number of articles on the Cubs
2. Explains away anything positive about the Cubs as being just luck.
3. Tells any other commenter(s) that they should learn about [pick sabermetric topic].

Joser
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Joser

4. Manages to bring the Giants or a Giants player into the conversation even though the only relevance to the current topic is that they also play baseball.

Beer
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I wholeheartedly approve. Two mugs up!

output gap
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output gap

5. Replies to his own thread citing how no one is refuting his points