Nashville Sounds starting pitcher Daniel Mengden continues to rocket through the Oakland A's system.
On Monday, the 23-year-old gave up two earned runs, which equaled his season high. It was just the second time in his 10 starts this year between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Nashville he had done so. The 6.1 inning outing drove his ERA from a miniscule 0.79 to a still incredible 1.12. His shortest outing this season has been five innings.
Despite his young age, Mengden is noted for having four pitches at his disposal; both a two- and four-seam fastball, a cutter, a curve, and a change-up.
The fastball is the base upon which his success relies, he said in a recent interview.
“Fastball command is key,” Mengden said. “If you have that working, you can really throw anything off of that. I can really go fastball/change-up the whole game. If I do that, I don't really need the other pitches...but I try to mix it up.”
The cutter, Mengden said, was a result of coming to professional baseball out of college.
“Once I came from college to pro-ball – when the laces [of the ball] changed – my slider turned into a cutter, and so now I've been trying to perfect that,” Menden said.
“I think the cutter has been really big. One thing I've found is having the cutter and that fourth pitch [the curve] really, really helped.”
The curveball is still a work in progress, but Mengden said he has found it to beneficial.
“It used to be fastball, slider, [and] change-up. The curveball was kind of just a pitch to have – I really wouldn't throw it very much. But this off-season, I really tried to develop the curve a lot,” he added.
“It's gotten a lot better. Last year, I was talking to Rick Rod [Nashville pitching coach and 2015 Stockton pitching coach Rick Rodriguez], and he said the curveball looked 10 times better than it did last year in Stockton [in High A-ball] with him. It was just kind of a loopy pitch to throw in there, but this year, I've been working on really trying to sharpen it up...and it's turned into a really good curveball. My last couple of outings, I used the curveball and cutter equally as an out-pitch.”
Mengden said he would rank his pitches in order of strength as fastball, change-up, cutter, and then curveball.
“I usually try to throw all four in a game,” he said. “Even if they're not working, I still throw them. You have to show the batters there are four pitches that they have to worry about, and if you have a good four-pitch mix going, it's going to be hard for any hitter.
“If I can go first time through [a lineup] just fastball/change-up, and maybe some cutters, that'd be good. If there are guys in scoring position or I need a ground ball or a strikeout, I might mix it up and throw the whole [kitchen] sink at them.”
Of course, it depends on the opposing batter.
“We always have the scouting reports about the weaknesses of hitters, so I try to pitch to that the best we can,” Mengden said. “Me and Bruce [Sounds catcher Bruce Maxwell] go over everything before the game, but whatever the hitter shows us, we just go off that. If he can't hit a fastball, I'll keep throwing him that until he shows me he can hit it, and once he shows me that, we can go from there.”
Despite Mengden’s early success this season, he isn’t sitting on his laurels.
“You always try to improve everything about your craft. The fastball has been there for me a long time – I can always rely on my fastball – the cutter has been good; the change-up is most of the times there,” he said. “But I'm really focusing on the cutter and curveball and making sure those out pitches are there.”
Mengden, a 6'3”, 190-pound right-hander, was originally drafted in the fourth round in 2014 out of Texas A&M by the Houston Astros. He came to the Oakland organization as part of the Scott Kazmir trade in July of last year. Mengden said he appreciated his time in the Astros organization, being from Texas, but he is excited about his opportunities with Oakland and the climate the organization provides.
“I'd say the Athletics are a little more laid back,” he said. “The Astros were a little more strict. The A's are super laid-back. They told me they have two rules: wear white cleats and be on time. They [also] want you to go about your business as a professional, of course.”
The relaxed style of the A's organization has proven to be beneficial to Mengden.
“The one thing about the Astros, they kind of messed with my mechanics a little bit, and when I came to the A's, they let me go back to what I used to do in college. They don't care how it looks; if I throw strikes, I throw strikes,” Mengden said. “I went back to my old wind-up, and I feel comfortable with it and have been throwing really well.”
It is a bit of a non-traditional wind-up – almost the kind one would see in East Asia, and it came from not being entirely serious in a bullpen session after some failings at the start of his college career.
“In my freshman year of college, I wasn't throwing really well,” Mengden said. “I was just a thrower and threw really hard. It was all over the place, and I was really getting crushed. [My coach] told me I needed to figure out how to pitch or I wasn't going to play for him there at Texas A&M.
“I was literally in a bullpen [session] with my catcher, and I just kind of threw my hands over my head, kind of did a step back, kind of a little pause, a little shake, a big leg kick, and I threw a pitch. It was paint, strike, knees.”
His bullpen catcher was caught off-guard.
“My catcher said, 'What was that?' I was like, 'I don't know.' But I started doing it over and over again and practicing it and molding it. People ask me where I got it from – I just kind of threw it together one day,” he said.
“I was messing around and just started throwing things together. It started working. It's weird [looking], it's funky, people say it kind of looks like a Japanese pitcher.”
The vast array of pitches and the uncommon wind-up are not the only things that distinguish Mengden from other pitchers – he sports a Rollie Fingers-type mustache, as well. The mustache is another thing that started during his college years.
“Our pitching coach – and head coach – we weren't allowed to grow facial hair – they were pretty strict on that – but he did allow us to grow whatever he grew,” Mengden said. “He grew a regular, bushy mustache, so I thought I would one-up him and grow out the Rollie Fingers mustache, so I did it. Fans loved it, [and] I started pitching well with it.
“I just kind of let it grow through the season. I trim it when I need to.”
Not only is it popular, but it is helping to raise funds for a good cause.
“Ralston Cash with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization contacted me over Instagram,” Mengden said. “He has his own charity called 'The Ralston Cash Foundation.' It helps kids who have lost parents to cancer. He sells t-shirts with a silhouette of a guy's face with a mustache on it.
“He asked me if I'd like to join along since I have this mustache, so I joined on with him for that. The links are on both my Instagram and my Twitter.”
Meanwhile, Mengden continues to produce for the surging Sounds. With Mengden’s win on Monday, the Sounds moved to 31-20 and now have the best record in the Pacific Coast League.