As a second-round pick that belted 57 home runs in three years at Fresno State (setting a school record) and won College World Series Most Outstanding Player honors, Tom Mendonca joined the Texas Rangers' organization with lofty expectations.
But professional teams also knew that Mendonca's swing would need some adjusting while he made the transition from metal to wood. He had a tendency to drop his back shoulder in a heavy uppercut, leading to lots of home runs but also high strikeout totals.
After the California native posted a strong professional debut at short-season Spokane in '09, Mendonca spent his first full season with High-A Bakersfield. He scuffled through much of the year, posting a .248/.331/.391 slash line in 120 games. While the average was low and he had some trouble with strikeouts (26.6 percent rate), Mendonca's lack of game power was perhaps the most surprising aspect of his season.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that Mendonca should repeat the High-A level for at least part of another season. But the presence of recent lower-level third base prospects Mike Olt (Myrtle Beach) and Christian Villanueva (Hickory) bumped Mendonca up to Double-A out of spring training.
While the other prospects helped Mendonca reach a higher level, it initially didn't appear to be much of a blessing. The 23-year-old was being bumped to Double-A after a rough year in a hitter-friendly league. The assignment appeared to be something of a sink-or-swim move––particularly with two prospects on his tail––in just his second full season of pro ball.
But just over one month into the 2011 season, Mendonca is silencing the doubters and looks like one of the more surprising performers in the Rangers' system. Through 35 games, he has put the plus raw power back into game action, posting a .317/.338/.579 slash line. He currently ranks fourth in the Texas League with 10 round-trippers.
Mendonca is doing more than simply staying afloat at the higher level––he appears to be breaking out. Even though the Rangers have Adrian Beltre manning the hot corner in the majors, they're deep in the minors with Mendonca, Olt, and Villanueva all playing well. It's surely a good problem for the Rangers to have, but a problem nonetheless.
In addition to his work at the plate, Mendonca's above-average glove at third base makes him a particularly intriguing prospect. But despite his good range and plus arm strength, he also struggled defensively last season.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound prospect committed 28 errors for a subpar .904 fielding percentage in 114 games at third in 2010. It was an all-around disappointing year that, according to Mendonca, caused him to focus on the basic fundamentals of fielding. Now, with improved fundamentals paired with the strong tools, he has only four errors in his first 35 games (.963).
The two glaring negatives in Mendonca's game are currently his strikeout rate and the lack of walks––two things Mendonca says, in the following interview, that he wants to focus on improving. He is currently tops in the Texas League with 44 punchouts (29.1 percent rate), and he has only four walks (one intentional) in those 35 games. If he is to maintain the high batting average, he'll almost certainly have to adjust and make more consistent contact as the season progresses.
Still, the progression in Mendonca's game is definite. On May 16, he has already matched his 2010 total in round-trippers. At this time last season, the prospect was still without a homer––he didn't hit his first until May 26. Now, Mendonca is having success at Double-A––both offensively and defensively––in his second full season.
Lone Star Dugout recently caught up with the former second-round pick to discuss his development with the RoughRiders.
Jason Cole: Just tell me about the start you've gotten off to here in Frisco.
Tom Mendonca: Getting here was a great stepping stone––coming back up and being with Buechele and this coaching staff is a new and good experience. We have a good team camaraderie. I'm just coming up here and having fun. Bakersfield was fun, but it's just a different atmosphere. It's coming to the ballpark––it's just really nice.
Cole: I'm sure last year was disappointing for you, even though you started to pick it up toward the end. When you stepped back and reflected over the offseason, what did you take away from your 2010 season?
Mendonca: Just knowing that we signed some new people. I knew that there was more competition coming in, and I was focusing more. Then we signed Adrian Beltre––that was another thing that crawls into your mind. But you can only control what you can do, and that's what I've been doing right now. It's just controlling what you can. At the end of the season, I wanted to loosen it up and have fun again. Acting like a little kid––that was in my mind. Good things will happen.
Cole: You got the chance to play at instructs and advanced instructs after last season. When I was there, it seemed like you were playing well. Did you feel that you were starting to turn a corner out there?
Mendonca: Instructs my first year and advanced instructs in my second year––for some reason, at instructs, things just click. You have a lot more one-on-one time with a lot of different people, and a lot of different drills this year that were great. I picked out a drill that I really love. Me and Luis Ortiz were hitting a tire––slapping a tire. It sounds dumb, but it was my favorite thing to do––just taking a baseball bat and hitting a tire. And that really, really helped me. I think that was the stepping stone to getting things started in my honest opinion.
Cole: What did the Rangers tell you out of spring training when they said you were going to Frisco? Or did they tell you anything?
Mendonca: I read a piece of paper. The day before we broke camp, teams were posted and that's how I found out. It's a great feeling. And then seeing who else was on there––it's a good group of guys. Coming here, like a little kid, I just wanted to see how it is. I've never really been playing out of California in my life. This is a first, and it has turned out great.
Cole: Even though I'm sure it's nice to be at home and in a comfortable setting, is it also nice to get away from the distractions and focus solely on baseball?
Mendonca: Yeah. I love being at home and stuff, but the higher levels are going to take you different places, and that is ultimately what you want to do––be in different places.
Cole: Last year, we talked a lot about your work defensively. I think you probably had a few more errors last year than you would have liked. It seems like the improvement is coming in Double-A, though. Can you talk about some of the work you have done at third?
Mendonca: I've improved a lot. The stuff––playing on a different surface and playing on a surface that is a lot more true. And just going back to the basics has really helped––knowing you can do it and knowing what you can do. I pressed the panic button, but it was never a doubt. It was just about taking a step back and doing everyday things.
Cole: When I interviewed Brant Brown a couple weeks ago, he said that you guys had reviewed some tape on lefty swingers and righty throwers like yourself. And he said guys like yourself had a lot of similarities in their swings. Can you talk about that? What were you able to learn from that?
Mendonca: I've watched some tape of people who are lefty hitters and righty throwers. We pretty much all bat the same. Just seeing somebody doing the same thing that's at the highest level is comforting in a way. It's good to see other people, and it's great to see yourself. Because you think you're doing it right, and when you're not, you can see it. You can reflect back, talk, and discuss some things that will help you not do it. Brown knows his stuff. If something is going wrong, you just pull him aside and he'll tell you. Buechele does, too. That's always great to have right here.
Cole: Do you feel your swing has changed over the last two years?
Mendonca: Yeah. It has changed for the better, not for the worse.
Cole: What have you changed?
Mendonca: Just contact, to be honest. It's not as big, it's not so much movement, it's not so loopy, it's not so windy. It's just short and sweet. We tried polishing up a lot of stuff. It has gotten there, and it feels great.
Cole: Being in an eight-team circuit like the Texas League, you'll often see the same pitchers a number of times in one season. Have you noticed guys pitching you differently the second time around?
Mendonca: Not so much. Not really. Yeah, the first time you face them, they're going to throw a lot of fastballs. That pretty much happens all the time when you're a new guy. But they will change it up. They've got the scouting reports on what they're going to do in certain counts. Moving up and down from three, four, five––they pitch you differently there. You get used to that, too, by seeing the people in front of you and behind you and how they pitch them. Then they come back to you and talk to you about it. Everybody talks––that's what's good.
Cole: You've certainly had a strong start here, but what would you like to improve upon?
Mendonca: Just steady contact. Every year, I've always needed to work on walks. Walks are another thing––and cutting out the strikeouts. Just staying steady, keep going, keep pounding away, having good defense, and consistent offense. There's not much more. I just want to be mentally strong, you could say. I want to have fun. I'm concentrating on having some fun and playing some good baseball.
Cole: In a way, it's probably fair to say Chris Davis is a similar hitter to you in that he's a lefty hitter, righty thrower with power and strikeouts. When I spoke to him recently, he said a big thing in his development was coming to grips with the strikeouts, taking them with the home runs, and learning not to beat himself up over it. Have you kind of reached the same conclusion?
Mendonca: Yeah. And that's what I'm saying in being more consistent with the bat. If it's not a home run, at least hit the ball somewhere. But if you're going to strike out, you'll take the strikeouts––if you're going to be considered a power hitter, you can take those sometimes.
Cole: Is it difficult to keep from beating yourself up over it?
Mendonca: Oh yeah, you're going to strike out sometimes. And when you know you're swinging at bad pitches, you're going to beat yourself up. But that's one thing I have learned with myself––take strikeouts and don't beat yourself up. Because then you might take it out on the field and have another error. Or you might take it up to the next at-bat and have another strikeout. Then suddenly you're just spiraling downhill. One thing I've coped with, like you said––if you strike out, it's just another at-bat. You have got another at-bat or you can go make a good play on defense.
Cole: Did you feel, at times last year, that was an issue with you? Letting a bad at-bat carry over?
Mendonca: Yeah. I would beat myself up so much last year. I took a step back in the offseason and looked at it. Now this year, I've just got a completely different attitude about that stuff. It has really helped me out. It is two different people in my mind. I'm not just walking back and running through my own head. I'm walking back and thinking, ‘Okay, I beat myself,' or, ‘He beat me and now you know what he's got.'
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