After a lackluster 2016 with a 6.50 ERA, 4.34 FIP, and 1.61 WHIP across 14 starts, Daniel Mengden seemed to be headed into a career of fantasy irrelevance, reinforced by a pair of poor outings earlier in 2017. But since returning from a rib injury, Mengden was allowed just 2 ER in three starts, including 16 scoreless innings in his last two games. You might be excited (it’s hard not to be excited) especially when he induced zero walks and eleven strikeouts as well. Our first instinct is to believe that Mengden made a dramatic shift and while we can’t expect a 0.00 ERA, a sub 4.00, maybe even a 3.50 ERA could be in his future.
But 16 innings is a small sample and I elected to scrutinize each pitch Mengden threw in those two spotless starts. Instead of the normal rundown, I want to emphasize a few elements from these starts that can help us determine what to expect from Mengden for his final two starts and entering 2018.
His Fastball Was The Best We’ll See
Without even looking at video, one facet of Mengden’s game sticks out among the rest: his Fastball’s pVal. According to Pitch Info, Mengden earned a whopping 5.3 pVal for his Fastball across these two starts alone. For reference, Justin Verlander’s 32.3 pVal leads the majors as he’s needed 193.0 IP to accrue it and Mengden got about 16% of the way there in 16.0 innings. It’s absurdly high, essentially requiring Mengden to have exclusive success with the pitch.
So let’s look at this Fastball that tore up both the Phillies and Tigers. Like the heavy majority of pitchers, Mengden hinges on Fastballs early in the count and was able to get ahead with plenty pitches like this one to Jose Iglesias:
He was able to spot it for called strikeouts as well:
While also dancing outside and inside with heaters across the same at-bat:
But the biggest boost for the pitch was its ability to induce outs in play. The first inning of the Phillies game is all you need to see as returned a 1-2-3 inning off three heaters:
The pitch to Odubel Herrera was excellent as he hit the glove and returned a weak grounder. The other two…not as impressive. Both avoided the edges of the plate and while Aaron Altherr‘s groundout was a bit low, Cesar Hernandez’s was a 2-1 Fastball right down the heart of the plate. I was a bit surprised to see it turn into a routine groundout and right from the start it made me start questioning if Mengden really pitched well to deserve his outs or if this was a case of facing the Phillies and Tigers lineups with a sprinkle of luck.
Secondary Pitches are hit-or-miss
Let’s talk a moment about the rest of Mengden’s repertoire. He shares the load across all three of his secondary offerings, feeling out which is working at a given time, and each has their moments. For example, here’s his Slider getting a ton of bite to fool Rhys Hoskins:
A Changeup that clipped the bottom of the zone for an early strike:
And a Curveball that fooled Maikel Franco enough to lose his helmet:
It looks good. Like a full repertoire that Mengden could turn to at any point, in a way. I don’t think I saw Mengden have good command of every pitch at one point, but he would shuffle around between the secondary pitches, find the one he could feel at a given time, and focus on it for the rest of the at-bat. It can work, but you don’t need me to tell you that it’s not the best blueprint for success. Mengden doesn’t have that “right-hand-man” to turn to when he needs a 3-2 pitch that isn’t a Fastball. It could be his Changeup. It could be his Slider. But the choice isn’t clear as they just aren’t dependable enough.
Here’s what I mean. Mengden had a 1-0 Changeup for a strike prior, in another at-bat he takes the same approach at 1-1 and it wildly misses the glove:
Then there’s another second pitch Slider that misses it’s down-and-away spot, landing in the middle of the plate for a single:
And a Curveball that he tries to sneak in for a strike but it floats well out of the zone for an easy take:
I’m giving an equal amount of screen time for each pitch and their outcomes on purpose. It was essentially a 50/50 outcome for each offering and evenly divided usage as well, sitting from 13-14% for each secondary pitch across the two starts. It could work as an “effectively wild” approach, but that definitely isn’t something you want to bet on, especially when this was taken from a sample where Mengden was at his best.
At the end of the day, Mengden doesn’t have the supporting cast around his Fastball to make me believe Mengden can be consistently effective when his Fastball isn’t working at its best. There’s isn’t a money pitch in his arsenal to save him.
Luck Was On His Side
I touched on this a bit in the first point about Fastballs and while I could have added a paragraph or two there, I felt it needed its own section. It’s that important. These two games didn’t showcase a pitcher that overmatched batters, like what we see when Corey Kluber is on the mound or how I’ve shown with Luis Castillo creating stressful at-bats for hitters. This was a decent pitcher who had everything go his way.
Before the GIFs, I’m going to throw out some numbers. Mengden had 45 balls in play, with nine landing for hits leading to a .200 BABIP, a sizeable sample for just two starts. His SIERA was 3.72 despite the 0.00 ERA. They are clear signs of luck but maybe he was inducing plenty of dribblers or pop outs and deserved a low BABIP. Let’s take a look.
Here’s a Slider that Mikie Mahtook laced to left-field:
Maikel Franco hitting a one-hopper to third that was hit so hard we never saw it:
This Aaron Altherr flyout looked destined for the seats until the wind brought it back into the park:
And this one might be my favorite one of the lot. The best GIF of this entire article. This is the last pitch of Megnden’s at-bat to Alex Presley, the final pitch of his afternoon:
There so much to talk about. First we have Presley lazily swinging at a pitch that should have been taken for a ball, but actually getting decent wood on it and finding the left-fielder. Then there’s the Curveball well outside of the strikezone because Mengden struggles with consistency on his deuce. But this is all standard and I can’t really dock points for it.
The best part is the three dots right in the middle of the plate. Mengden threw all three Fastballs one after the other to begin the at-bat. Three meatballs down the center of the plate and Presley took the first and fouled off the other two. These are pitches that trigger emotional responses when you release them, praying to the baseball gods in that split second on release that this ball won’t become a bleacher souvenier. And Mengden did it three times in a row, leaving the mound without a scratch.
These are only four examples, but there were plenty more of pitches left in the heart of the plate that simply weren’t punished. Some were – Mengden did allow nine hits after all – but there were many left untouched.
I find it hard to believe that Mengden has turned into a pitcher that we can now trust. He had moments of looking excellent on the hill as he would move his heater across both sides of the plate or get into a groove with his Changeup and Slider, but overall Mengden’s recent success is an amalgamation of poor lineups, good luck, and moments of brilliance. His stuff isn’t overpowering, which will be a problem as he makes too many mistake pitches, and his BABIP will rise. Strikeouts will still be hard to come by and he will face tougher lineups that will punish him.
Mengden is slated for two starts in the final week of the season, facing the Mariners and heading to Arlington for the Rangers. It may be tempting to chase him after 16 innings of shutout baseball, but this seems more like a trap than a welcome invitation.