Saturday, March 17, 2012

Luis Mendoza: A ruined post

Ah! The life of a baseball writer. After pouring over spring results and stats on a Saturday morning, the search was on for a glimmer of a post idea. The search led to Luis Mendoza of the Kansas City Royals. Wow! He's having a good spring! And this is after a strong Triple A campaign and two excellent starts in September with the big club. This was the story idea that was needed. Luis Mendoza is a sleeper pick! But since the fear of being stupid is one of the strongest motivators, the thought occurred that perhaps opinions on the subject should be culled from others. The result? Nobody believes in the guy.

Something certainly seemed to happen last year that turned Mendoza's life around. To explain that statement, we need a little history first. The Mexican pitcher was signed by the Red Sox as a free agent way back in 2000. Mendoza was seventeen years old. He kicked around in the Red Sox lower minors for years and apparently hit a wall in 2005. The San Diego Padres claimed him on waivers in 2005 and he was terrible for their A+ league and the Red Sox claimed him back. In 2006, the Red Sox traded Mendoza to the Texas Rangers for the then 33 year old Bryan Corey. Corey pitched nine times for the Red Sox in 2007 and got himself a World Series Ring, but the career minor league pitcher's career fizzled and after 91 MLB appearances, Corey was out of baseball after the 2010 season.

Back to Mendoza. Unlike the past two seasons when the team has turned their pitching around, the Texas Rangers were perennially poor in the pitching department when Mendoza arrived in the organization in 2006. They were starved for pitching. They installed Mendoza at the Double A level despite that being above where he had pitched before. It didn't go well in 2006. But in 2007, Mendoza went 15-4 for the Rangers' Double A affiliate in Frisco of the Texas League. Mendoza's stats weren't too far removed from other years, but again, the Rangers were starved for pitchers. When the rosters expanded in September, the Rangers brought Mendoza to the majors where after seven long years in the minors, Mendoza made his major league debut on September 8, 2007.

Mendoza pitched six times for the Rangers that September including three starts. He finished with a 2.25 ERA. For a team that desperately needed pitching, this was encouraging. As such, he was invited to Spring Training in 2008 and despite a somewhat poor spring, the Rangers put him in the rotation to start the 2008 season. It was a disaster. Mendoza pitched a total of 63.1 innings, went 3-8 and had an ERA of 8.67. Mendoza then spent 2009 in the minors. Before the season started in 2010, the Rangers traded Luis Mendoza to the Royals in a cash deal.

Mendoza pitched for the Royals Triple A affiliate in Omaha in 2010 after getting a brief look in April. In four April appearances for the Royals, Mendoza got bombed and he was sent down to Omaha. We are getting closer to the present. Craig Brown of the fine Royal's blog, Royals Authority, wrote the following on what happened next:

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.
It was indeed. In 2011, Luis Mendoza went 12-5 for Omaha in 144.1 innings of work. He had a 2.18 ERA. His hits per nine innings were his lowest in eight years going back to his early years in the low minors. His season merited a September call up to the Royals where he went 2-0 in two starts with a breezy 1.23 ERA. But both Craig Brown of the aforementioned Royals' blog nor Jeff Parker of the very fine Royally Speaking blog are buying it. Brown's conclusion in the same piece:
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. 
And Jeff Parker's thoughts
If I'm right and he (Mendoza) does make the rotation then I think we could see a repeat of what Sean O'Sullivan did last year. Like Mendoza, O'Sullivan is trying to survive with a low strikeout rate (4.2 SO/9). Last season he had a 2.16 ERA after his first 4 starts but his other numbers were telling a story that would produce an unhappy ending. In 25 innings he had 13 strikeouts and 13 walks and held hitters to an unsustainable .227 BAbip, meaning he was more lucky than good, and at some point the wheels would fall off. And boy, did they ever. His next 5 starts produced a 11.10 ERA and he was compassionately removed from the rotation making just one more start all year (a token September appearance in which he gave up 6 runs in 5 innings). 
Brown also mentions that Mendoza's two September starts were against a Tigers team that had already won the division and the White Sox who had quit as a team in August. The caveat that both are talking about is Mendoza's low strikeout rate. Mendoza also had a .229 BABIP last season in his two starts. Both writers doubt that Mendoza can have long term success with such a low strikeout rate. It's hard to argue with those conclusions. But it's also worth noting that so far this spring, Mendoza has struck out eleven batters in 10.2 innings of work. And he's only given up one run all spring.
Parker contends that the spring stats are meaningless because of weak competition. In one game in which Mendoza faced the Rockies for four and two-thirds innings, Parker contends that it was a really weak line up the pitcher faced.
It's hard to argue with either writer. Mendoza has never, ever, struck out a high number of batters. Surviving in the majors is tough to do depending on your fielders to catch a ball in play on nearly every batter. But it does appear that when camp breaks, Mendoza will head east to Kansas City and will start the season in the rotation. This post started as a thought to make Luis Mendoza a sleeper pick. It ends as a warning of trouble ahead.

1 comment:

Thomas Slocum said...

Your excellent research into the views of others aside, you're far too astute to have pegged Luis wrong by basing a post on his 2 late year 2011 starts. What is intriguing about Luis is that he has, to date, been able to post 6 major league victories (all in starts) with an overall line of 7.36 ERA, 95 runs (81 earned) in 99 innings, 12.1 H/9, 3.5 BB/9, and 4.5 K/9. The unearned runs (14 in 99 innings; about 15% of the total runs he surrendered) are even an eye-opener; beyond his many other faults, Mendoza has not been able to keep his fielders engaged in the game.

Maybe he's a late-bloomer. Certainly his 2011 AAA record, save the Buehrle-like K rate and a so-so BB rate, was a career zenith. Indeed, his now 3 year + record in AAA ball shows a steady, or better, progression in hit and run prevention. And with a pitching staff that's lagging behind their rapidly developing young position players, the Royals could likely be more significantly, and legitimately, criticized for not bringing Mendoza north with the big league team as a back end rotation starter than if they were to send him down (presuming he does not crash and burn in his remaining pre-season appearances). There may be a lot of heart here; at worst, perhaps he's a place-holder who will allow Duffy and Montgomery a little more development time.