Name: Francisco Mendoza
Position: Relief Pitcher
DOB: December 7, 1987
Acquired: 2008 International Free Agent
The interview in this story was conducted after a Hickory game at Asheville on August 5, 2011, in which Mendoza worked two innings while yielding one run and striking out four.
Entering the 2011 season, Francisco Mendoza's professional career had been marked by inconsistency and one big injury. Although his fastball touched the mid-90s with some regularity between 2008 and 2010, his secondary stuff and command were inconsistent.
Mendoza's inconsistency showed in the numbers with short-season Spokane two seasons ago. After spending two years in the Dominican Summer League, he began his state-side career at extended spring training in '10 before shipping out to the Indians.
Mendoza appeared in 19 games with Spokane and posted a 4.18 earned-run average. While he fanned 35 batters in 28 innings, he yielded 34 hits and walked 17.
The right-handed reliever began last season back in extended spring and once again went to Spokane in June. He was again spotty––giving up 10 runs in 15 relief innings––but his stuff showed signs of improvement.
The Rangers opted to push Mendoza, who turned 24-year-old earlier this offseason, with a mid-July promotion to Single-A Hickory. With the Crawdads, his stuff was suddenly more consistent. Mendoza was flashing a sharp slider and getting ahead in counts with his fastball.
The development resulted in excellent numbers. He allowed seven runs in 22.2 late-season innings (2.78 ERA) while allowing 17 hits, walking five and striking out 33. But aside from the stats, it was the improving slider that was perhaps most impressive.
Mendoza's rapidly developing breaking ball was on display in an August 5 outing at Asheville, when he struck out four in two innings of work.
"I felt good," said Mendoza after the appearance. "I felt like my stuff was there. I felt like I was 100 percent, and I just feel like I made good pitches."
He entered the game with runners on the corners and nobody out in the bottom of the seventh inning before getting out of the jam unscathed. It was an impressive job of pitching for a guy whose career had been defined by inconsistency.
"I try to stay calm and keep my adrenaline down because I have my focus right in front of me," he said, through a translator. "I just concentrate on the batter and try to focus on what I have at hand. I try to forget that I have people on base."
After spending parts of two summers in Spokane–-and posting a cumulative 4.81 ERA with the Indians––he saw the sudden promotion as a blessing. And he made sure to take full advantage of the opportunity.
"I'm happy to be up here," he said. "Last year, I didn't have that good of a year. But I'm just happy that this year, I felt good and I knew that good things would happen. I'm happy to be here."
Before last season, Mendoza's slider was a fringy 82-85 mph offering that lacked late break and he struggled to command. It began flashing plus in Spokane last summer, as he broke out an occasional 85-87 mph slider with sharper break and tilt.
His breaking ball took yet another step forward after the promotion. Against Asheville, Mendoza was suddenly featuring a wipeout 86-89 mph power slider. Although most sliders at that velocity look more like a cutter, his was a true slider. The pitch was hard with late snap and good tilt. It remained impressive at fall instructional league following the regular season.
Mendoza says the key to his slider's improvement can be traced back to the summer of 2010, when he worked with then-Indians pitching coach (and former Rangers pitcher) Justin Thompson.
"Justin Thompson, my pitching coach in Spokane last year, just told me not to worry about hitting the batter," Mendoza said. "He said to just throw it as hard as I can. And that's what I've been doing. It has been working for me."
He not only used the slider effectively against fellow righties, but also against left-handed hitters. Against the Tourists, he got a strikeout by throwing a back-foot breaking ball to a southpaw––something he says he'd never been able to do in past years.
"Last year, I didn't feel comfort in throwing it to a lefty," he said. "This year, it's all different. I feel a lot more comfortable doing that. (My command) has improved a bunch. I feel comfortable throwing it in any count."
Another key to Mendoza's improvement was the ability to get ahead in counts with his fastball. Though his within-the-zone fastball command must continue to develop, he didn't have an issue with walks in Hickory. He believes the added confidence has played a big role.
"I just feel like my pitches are good and I can locate my fastball whenever I want," he said. "I can basically locate any pitch to any part of the plate. I feel like I have good command."
That Mendoza is even pitching competitively at this point is a remarkable story. He was involved in a serious automobile accident in his native Dominican Republic after signing with the Rangers in '08.
Mendoza says he injured his knee badly when his motorcycle collided with a truck. Doctors told him he may have trouble walking again, let alone getting back on the mound and throwing a mid-90s fastball.
"After the surgery, they told me that it was going to be tough for me to walk again," Mendoza said. "They said I might not be able to pitch again. I worked hard on it and got it better so I could keep playing.
"At first, the therapy that I had was expensive for me. But I learned all the stuff. My buddies back home would help me out with doing the exercises. I would just keep working out to get it better."
To Mendoza's credit, his hard work would pay off quickly. He convinced the Rangers to let him throw a few bullpen sessions. After struggling with velocity initially, he regained strength with each time on the mound. Before long, his velocity was better than it had been before the injury.
"It was tough to move around (initially)," he said. "I was limping everywhere."
Mendoza enters the 2012 season hoping to build upon his late-season success of last summer. Inconsistency has been an issue through his career, and it'll be important––especially at his age––that picks up where he left off. But if he continues flashing the wipeout fastball-slider mix, he could begin to move quickly.
"I just want to continue how I am," he said of 2012. "I feel good. I feel like I'm at 100 percent, and this is the first year that I've felt like that. I just want to keep it up and keep doing that."
Thanks to Hickory reliever Jorge Marban for helping translate the interview with Mendoza.
Also See: Rangers Advanced Instructs Notes (September 28, 2011)
Tweeting Rangers Instructs (October 2, 2011)
Rangers Top Prospects, Top Tools (October 27, 2011)
Rangers All-Prospect Teams (November 8, 2011)
Repertoire: Fastball, Slider, Changeup.
Fastball: Using a whippy three-quarters delivery, Mendoza has a fast arm that produces a definite plus fastball. It's a 92-96 mph offering with good life. The late armside run on his fastball enables him to miss barrels and induce some ground balls when he throws it low in the strike zone. Fastball command has been an issue for Mendoza in past years, though it improved as last season progressed. After having trouble with walks in parts of two summers with short-season Spokane, Mendoza issued only five free passes in 22.2 innings at Hickory last year.
The 6-foot-0, 175-pound reliever will need to prove that he can continue getting ahead in counts with his fastball so he can set hitters up for his put-away pitch––the slider. He also must still improve his within-the-zone fastball command. Given his plus two-pitch mix, Mendoza remains more hittable than he should be, and it's because he leaves too many fastballs up in the zone or over the plate.
Other Pitches: Mendoza's slider gives him a second plus pitch, and it's one of the system's better breaking balls––arguably a 70-grade (plus-plus) offering. As mentioned in the story above, his slider was a fringy pitch as late as last summer, throwing it at 83-85 mph with slurvy action at times.
Down the stretch last season, Mendoza began throwing his slider anywhere between 86-90 mph, and it looked like a different pitch. The offering comes out of his hand on the same plane as his fastball before darting down and away to right-handed batters at the last moment. The pitch has so much tilt that it can almost be described as late two-plane break at fastball-like velocity. He also commanded the pitch well, throwing it backdoor and back-foot as a put-away pitch to lefties in Hickory last year.
Mendoza mixes in the very occasional 86-87 mph changeup, but he's almost exclusively a fastball-slider reliever.
Projection: It's difficult to say exactly how good Mendoza can be, and more importantly, what he'll most likely become. While he has the absolute ceiling of a late-inning big league reliever, he's 24 and has yet to pitch above Low-A ball. However, the stuff for success is clearly there in his fastball-slider combination. It'll come down to how well he commands the two offerings––and, of course, whether he can stay consistent in flashing the wipeout slider that he began showing late last season. Mendoza's pure stuff is developed and practically big league-ready, but his command must continue improving.
2012 Outlook: A strong performance in spring training should be enough for Mendoza to open the regular season at High-A Myrtle Beach. If he picks up where he left off last year by throwing strikes with above-average stuff, the right-hander could begin to move quickly and reach Double-A Frisco before the All-Star break. At his advanced age, the Rangers probably won't be shy about pushing him up the ladder if he's having success.
|2008||DSL Rangers (DSL)||2-0||21.0||15||10||24||1.71|
|2009||DSL Rangers (DSL)||2-1||37.1||30||6||38||1.45|
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