Right-hander Daniel Mengden came roaring out of the gate this season and got off to as impressive a start as any pitcher in the A’s system. The Texas native allowed just two runs over his first four starts at Double-A Midland while notching 28 strikeouts in 23 innings to go along with his 0.78 ERA. When top pitching prospect Sean Manaea was promoted to Oakland, the 23-year-old was quickly summoned to Triple-A Nashville to take his spot in the Sounds starting rotation. And in his first start in Music City, Mengden appeared just as dominant, tossing six shutout innings to earn the win in his Nashville debut.
After attending Westside High School in Houston, Mengden blossomed into a star pitcher at Texas A&M and, after a particularly impressive sophomore season, he was considered a possible first-round draft pick. But injury issues in his junior year pushed him into the fourth round, where he was selected by his hometown Houston Astros in the 2014 draft. After spending parts of two seasons in the Astros organization, Mendgen was acquired by the A’s last summer, along with catcher Jacob Nottingham, in the trade that sent left-hander Scott Kazmir to Houston, and he ended up posting a 4.25 ERA over eight starts for Stockton last season.
Mengden is a four-pitch pitcher whose fastball has apparently topped out at 98 mph this year. “He’s been super,” said A’s special assistant Grady Fuson on Mengden’s hot start. “I saw him last year prior to the trade too. He’s got good stuff – his velocity, curveball and changeup are all solid.” And when asked what Mengden needs to do to make it to the next level, Fuson offered, “I’d like to see him more focused early in the count – he needs to get strike one more often.”
If he can keep it going, Mengden’s fast start this season could possibly put him on a similar path to former A’s pitching prospects Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin in 2012. After getting off to hot starts at Midland that year, they were both moved up to Triple-A, where they continued to impress, and the pair ended up finshing the season in the A’s starting rotation. And with expected A’s starters Chris Bassitt and Felix Doubront both sidelined for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, it’s not hard to imagine Mengden making an appearance in the major league rotation before the season is through if he can keep up the good work.
Also working in Mengden’s favor, as far as A’s fans may be concerned, is his distinctive handlebar mustache, reminiscent of legendary A’s reliever Rollie Fingers, which will certainly help endear him to the A’s faithful whenever he ultimately arrives in Oakland. We took the chance to speak with the mustachioed Mr. Mengden this weekend, just a day before he was set to make his second start for Nashville…
AF: Well your season’s certainly gotten off to a good start. So is there anything in particular you attribute your early success to this year?
DM: Well if I think about it, I probably would say it’s been the first offseason I’ve been able to work out and everything. When I was drafted by the Astros originally, I had a stress fracture in my back and I had to rehab that…so I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been going so well – kind of just being healthy. And I’ve really worked on normal stuff you’d work on during the offseason – just trying to make my pitches better and just trying to make my craft better overall.
AF: You haven’t been at Triple-A for very long yet, but does anything seem different to you in terms of the batters you’re facing and their approach at this level?
DM: I think it’s kind of the same. I’d say the one thing that’s different is maybe the approach is just a little bit better and their overall eye with two strikes and their knowledge of the strike zone’s a little bit better.
AF: I believe you’ve got four different pitches you’re working with. So what’s exactly in your repertoire?
DM: Yeah, I throw a fastball, both four-seam and two-seam, a cutter, a changeup and a curveball.
AF: And which would you say is the strongest of your secondary pitches?
DM: To put them in order, I’d probably say changeup, cutter, curveball.
AF: How do you feel about your off-speed stuff at this point? Is there anything in particular you’re working on right now?
DM: The one thing I really worked on this offseason was the curveball. It was more a sort of get-me-over pitch. And I really started working on making it an out pitch, making it sharper, being able to throw it harder. So that’s honestly been a really big key for me – being able to have four strong pitches, not just three then a curveball. I feel like what I’ve done with my curveball this offseason allows me to have four strong pitches that I can throw to hitters and keep them off balance.
AF: So what’s your out-pitch that you’re most comfortable going to when you really need something in a tough spot?
DM: I’ll really use all three, or actually all four, just depending on what the hitter shows me. And if one’s not working, I guess the one that’s always there is usually the cutter. That pitch is there for me most of the time. So if I would pick the one that’s the most consistent, it’d probably be the cutter.
AF: I’ve heard reports that your velocity has been up a bit this season. So do you feel you’re throwing a little harder this year?
DM: Yeah, I feel kind of the same, but the numbers that I’ve been getting back this year have been a little bit better.
AF: What have they shown you topping out at this year?
AF: Well that’s a good number!
AF: Do you feel that’s primarily due to being healthy and the offseason work you were able to put in this year?
DM: Yeah, I think so. In my first full season with the Astros, I was anywhere from 90-95, and then this year in spring training, I was getting it up there. In spring training, I hit 98 a couple times. And so far this year, there’s been a lot of 97s, and they’ve said I’m 93-94ish most of the time, instead of 90-91.
AF: Well, those few extra miles an hour make a big difference! Looking at your numbers over the past couple of years, it doesn’t look like you’ve had all that much trouble with left-handed hitters. Do you have any kind of different approach against left-handed and right-handed batters?
DM: Not really, I think the way my pitches are are a lot harder on lefties. I have a hard change and then a cutter on the hands and also a fastball and a curveball. I feel like it really affects them more than righties. I can run that cutter in on their hands and really blow them up, and then I can go down and away with the changeup and kind of get them all messed up. And really with all four pitches, I can keep them off balance.
AF: Now going back to your trade to the A’s last summer, I know you’re from Houston and you were drafted by your hometown team, the Astros. So what was your reaction to the trade and how did you find out about it?
DM: I was actually sleeping. I got a call about 9 in the morning. It was an assistant GM. I saw his name pop up and I was like, “Oh my gosh, what’s going on?” So I woke myself up really fast and answered the phone. And he just said straight up, “You’ve been traded to the Athletics. Wish you all the best, you’ve done great for our organization, blah, blah, blah.” And he said, “David Forst with the A’s will be in touch with you. Have a great career.” That was it, and so at that moment, I was like, “What?” It was kind of weird. We knew trades were going to happen because the Astros were making a run. We were all talking about it, but we thought maybe I’d have a safety blanket over me because I’m from Houston, but I was one of the first ones to go when me and Jacob [Nottingham] got traded. And the A’s organization’s been great, I love everything about it and it’s just been a great change for me.
AF: And if I recall, I think your team, Lancaster, was playing the A’s affiliate, Stockton, the day you were traded, right?
DM: Yes, me and Jacob packed up our bags and walked across the field and played our old team.
AF: I’d imagine getting traded in the middle of the season and having to meet a bunch of new teammates had to be a little weird for you. Did you know anyone with the Ports or become tight with anyone over there quickly?
DM: Yeah, I knew Matt Chapman beforehand [from Team USA]. And getting traded over there, it was nice knowing somebody. And then me, Corey Walter and Joel Seddon became pretty good friends, and then we were all together at Midland to start the year, so it was nice.
AF: Now coming over and joining a new organization, how did you feel about the A’s and their approach to things?
DM: I liked it. It was way different from the Astros. The Astros were pretty strict – a lot of rules and stuff like that. And then getting traded over to the A’s, Rick Magnante, our manager at High-A, said, “We have two rules – be on time and wear white cleats.” So coming from the Astros to that, I was kind of blown away. Being here is really laid back. They let us just go out there and play baseball – be professional and go about your business. So it’s a lot of fun.
AF: I guess there aren’t too many rules and regulations to have to remember anyway.
DM: Nope, just go throw the baseball.
AF: This spring was your first spring in the A’s minor league camp. Gil Patterson also just returned to the organization as the A’s minor league pitching coordinator. How much time did you spend with him and was there anything in particular that the coaching staff was really working with you on this spring?
DM: Yeah, he’s a great coach. We worked on my stretch a little bit. My windup’s been pretty consistent for me. But we really worked on the stretch and really trying to find something that was comfortable for me and allowed me to be above the ball and get downhill with my pitches and throw pretty good strikes.
AF: I know you’ve got that unusual motion where you’ve got your hands way up over your head before you come set. Where did that come from?
DM: It came from back when I was in college. I was actually a catcher and a pitcher in college. My hitting wasn’t very good, so that’s why I’m a pitcher now. We just kind of threw it all together…one day, I was just messing around, throwing things together, and it started working.
AF: Now you started out the year at Double-A Midland. John Wasdin is the pitching coach down there. How much did he contribute to the good start you got off to this year?
DM: Yeah, he’s a great pitching coach and a great guy too. We worked on having a good plan going into the game, just keeping the ball down. Double-A and Triple-A, that’s where the real hitters are – the guys who can hit the fastball. So you’ve really got to be able to locate your fastball and use your other pitches as well.
AF: And now that you’re in Nashville, you’ve got Rick Rodriguez as your pitching coach.
DM: Yeah, he was our pitching coach in High-A last year. So it was nice getting to be with him for the last two months in Stockton and then being here is kind of nice. He knows me pretty well and what I like to do. So it’s nice having a guy you know around.
AF: So when you head out to take the mound, what’s your focus? Is there anything in particular you’re trying to remind yourself to do?
DM: Just pound the zone, establish strikes and let the defense play behind you.
AF: Despite your success this year, I’ve noticed that your walk rate has actually been up a little over last year. Is there any particular reason for that and are you trying to cut down on that a bit?
DM: Yeah, you never really want to walk people. I was talking about that with John Wasdin right before I got promoted. The one thing I can really work on is cutting down the walks. I think I had 12 walks at Midland in 23 innings, and I think I want to say maybe 8 or 9 were out of the stretch. I think I had 4 or 5 4-pitch walks. Sometimes I’d just kind of lose it. I’ve really been working on the stretch, and it’s slowly gotten better over time. But overall, my walks have been a little rough. I think I had close to 40 in around 130 innings last year, and I already had 12 in 23 this year. So I was really trying to work on that in my last outing. I was doing a good job of pounding the zone – I think I had 69 strikes in 96 pitches. And I was really trying to let the defense play and trying to use 3 or 4 pitches to get guys out instead of running the count to 2-2 or 3-2 and stuff like that.
AF: So is there anything else in particular you’re focused on trying to do the rest of the season?
DM: I’m just trying to stay as consistent as I can and just trying to go out there and make consistent starts for our team and give us a chance to win a ballgame.
AF: And finally, I have to ask you where that handlebar mustache of yours came from.
DM: It goes back to college. When I was at Texas A&M, our coach was pretty strict on facial hair and being clean cut, but he did allow us to grow whatever facial hair he grew. So he grew a normal bushy mustache, so I was was going to one-up him and grow a crazy Rollie Fingers mustache and curl it up. So I did it in college and the fan club did it and I started throwing well…then last year, I brought it back with the Astros organization. And then in the middle of the year last year, Ralston Cash with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization contacted me over Instagram and noticed I had a mustache just like him. He has his own charity foundation named after him, the Ralston Cash Foundation, and it helps children who’ve lost parents to cancer. He has these T-shirts with a silhouette of a guy’s face with a mustache on it, and he sells those T-shirts for his charity. And he asked if I wanted to join, since we had the same moustache, and help spread the word and help little kids around the U.S. So I told him, “Sure, I’d love to join.” So on my Instagram and Facebook, I try to help out when I can…but people kind of joked when I was traded to the A’s, it was like, “Hey, give me that guy with the stupid mustache!”
AF: Well, you’re definitely in the right organization for mustache appreciation!
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