You’ve seen Daniel Mengden pitch, right? If you haven’t, you have to. First of all, it looks like this.
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, here comes a 94 mph fastball. It’s all elbows and mustaches for the Rollie Fingers lookalike in green and gold, and, of course, deception is the first word we think of.
But here’s something, uh, deceptive about his delivery. It’s not about deception. “Everyone says it’s deception,” Mengden said with a smile, “but I use it as timing. My leg comes up and I rotate. People ask me why I do it, that crunch and that hitch. I don’t know.”
He did agree that his high leg kick and “crunch” looked very similar to something hitters do. “It’s a load!” he laughed when I suggested it. Take a look at what Mengden is doing above, and then what Josh Donaldson is doing in the freeze frame below. It’s probable that the pitcher’s actions are there to create the same thing that the hitter hopes to gain: leverage and timing conducive to power.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some deception integral to Mengden’s success. “I throw from almost directly over the top, and everyone always asks me how I get so much movement laterally,” the pitcher admitted. “Natural pronation and arm speed, and then a little bit the way my pitches are held.”
You can actually define expected movement by the pitcher’s arm slot, since the arm slot has so much to do with the direction of the spin and therefore the movement. If you use the expected movement calculation I developed here, you’d expect Mengden’s sinker to have 5.6 inches of fade. It only has a half inch more, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“My changeup is a really, really choked circle change,” Mengden points out. That allows him to get 8.4 inches of arm-side fade on his changeup, which is nearly two inches more than average. And if you define that fade as fade versus his fastball — which can be important to do — he gets nearly four inches more fade than average on that changeup.
The Astros, who selected Mengden in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, may have been guilty of not seeing him as well as they could have. The righty has added velocity since he was traded to the Athletics. It’s tempting to say it’s because the Athletics allowed him to throw this way while the Astros tried to stop him — “The Astros wouldn’t let me do that,” Mengden said, “but the Athletics were like, hey, go pitch, if there’s something bad, or you can’t throw strikes, then maybe we change it” — but that’s not really the story either.
Mengden came to the Athletics with a stress fracture in his back. “I was hitting, pitching, and we did a lot of running in college, all the time, really heavy running,” the righty said of his time at Texas A&M University. “I gained 25 pounds in college, and everything piled up together and was too much.” He didn’t lift much with the Astros because of the injury.
“This offseason was the first offseason I had to work out,” Mengden said. “This spring I hit 98, and I’d never hit 98 in my life!” So the light-throwing over-the-topper now has velocity and side-to-side movement.
He’s still got work to do in order to duplicate his mechanics out of the stretch. “Out of the stretch I can’t have as much deception, as you say, but I try to vary my times,” he pointed out. “I have a big leg kick and a slide step, and I’ll come set differently — really low, normal, kinda high. As long as I get to the same spot eventually, it’s fine for my mechanics.”
And he does lose some oomph on the fastball when he’s not using the load. Perhaps because they are trying to muscle up and get out of a sticky situation, most of baseball actually throws harder with runners on. Mengden drops more than a tick off the fastball.
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“We’ve been working on a leg kick to get a little bit more out of my legs then,” the pitcher said of trying to get more gas out of the stretch.
Though Mengden isn’t worried about his mechanics — “Once I’m coming down the hill, I’m the same as everyone” he said of his release point — he’s still got work to do on ironing out the kinks and taking full advantage of the different types of deception he does have. He’s fine with it. “You’re always working on something, no matter how old you are.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.