Mastering the change-up appears to be the secret to Beloit starting pitcher Junior Mendez’s success this season, as the 16th-round selection in the 2013 draft out of Southern New Hampshire has excelled in his move back into a starting role.
Although he didn’t move into the Snappers’ starting rotation until late-May, the 21-year-old Mendez has been the steadiest performer of late. Since entering the rotation for good on May 29th, Mendez has allowed more than two earned runs in just two starts and one or fewer in five.
His control has also seemed to improve since moving into the new role, as he has yet to issue more than one walk in any of his starts. Overall this season, Mendez has pitched to a 3.99 ERA and allowed 29 earned runs on 61 hits in 65.1 innings. His K:BB ratio is a respectable 39:14 in his 17 appearances.
"He’s a strike thrower with a good mix of off-speed pitches," said Beloit pitching coach Craig Lefferts. "He has a fastball that he can run up in the 90-91 mile-an-hour range. He’s been very consistent and is doing a nice job.
"This year I have been pleasantly surprised at how well he has repeated his delivery and commanded the zone. He’s had a couple strong outings. His change-up is a pitch that he didn’t use a lot in college and has been working on it."
"Now I have the changeup and am able to work with it, locate it down in the zone, and going back to locating my fastball" - Junior Mendez said.
After leading all Division II pitchers in strike-outs and ranking second in K/9 as a junior, Mendez signed with the A’s and moved into the bullpen during his pro debut. He posted a 2.75 ERA and a 40:15 K:BB in 39.1 innings for the AZL A's and Vermont Lake Monsters.
"He was in Arizona, got called up to Vermont and finished up the season there in the bullpen," Lefferts said. "This year he’s been given the opportunity to move into the rotation and he’s done a nice job. He’s pretty much doing what he did last year, just getting an opportunity to stretch himself and show he can work through the lineup three times."
While getting more movement on his change-up was a focus for Mendez, so was gaining a larger differential from his fastball velocity.
"All last year I was working on it and trying to develop it," Mendez said. "It had been like 85 or 86, so no real difference from my fastball. It wasn’t getting any run and was very flat up in the zone. I tried standing a little taller and getting out front and down through it, which got a little more sink on my two-seam [fastball] and changeup.
"But, as my changeup continued getting better my fastball starting getting flat up in the zone. A lot of hitters were eliminating both my pitches and just going straight for the fastball. Now I have the changeup and am able to work with it, locate it down in the zone, and going back to locating my fastball."
Mentally, it was a struggle early in the season for Mendez as he tackled full-season ball for the first time while trying to throw his fastball, curveball and change-up consistently for strikes.
"In the beginning of the year we were trying to do new things, like trying to get a little more sink on my ball and getting a little taller," he said. "It was kind of messing with me a little bit mentally, just getting my mind right to try and go pitch as I’ve got three or four different things working.
"Instead of thinking about pitching, I was worried about where my hands were or how tall I am versus just executing the pitch. I’m getting a better feel for it and getting into a better rhythm, while repeating my mechanics more often."
As would be expected, more innings and more repetition have allowed Mendez to find the right mix.
"As a starter you’ve got bullpens (on the side), so now I go in there and work on different things," he said. "When you’re coming out of the bullpen, you have that one outing and if you don’t do well then it’s in the back of your head. It throws you around and it’s already an up and down game."