Dakota Mekkes is a big dude with a big fastball (well, it’s more deceptive than big, but let’s go with it)…and a big head. He stands 6-foot-7 and tips the scales at around two-and-a-half bills, towering over hitters from the mound and daring them to beat the heater. The Jenison, Mich. product is plenty confident, though that’s not what the latter “big” is about. No, Mekkes literally has a large dome.
When asked what nickname he’d use on his Players’ Weekend jersey should he get that opportunity in the future, Mekkes went with CABEZÓN. That’s Spanish for “Big Head,” a moniker bestowed upon him by his Latin teammates in the Cubs organization.
Mekkes taking that nickname in stride and owning it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s known him as long as a phone conversation and it lets strangers know what he’s about. It’s clear from his tone that the good-natured ribbing is just another dimension of the joy he finds playing baseball. That’s been the case since he was a kid, and he’s never lost that childlike exuberance for the game.
No one’s mistaking the hulking reliever for a kid these days, though, especially not the opponents he’s mowed down at every stop along the way. Neither brash nor boastful, he simply goes out there armed with the belief that his stuff is better and the willingness to make hitters prove him wrong.
“I think for me the biggest thing is just keeping the confidence that I can get anyone out at any time,” Mekkes said. “Obviously as you go up levels the hitters are a lot better. And I think the biggest thing I noticed was the adjustment hitters make and the approaches they have at the higher levels, especially in Triple-A.
“Those are a lot of legit, big league guys. And for me, I just try to continue to throw with confidence and just continue to do what I do.”
Just continuing to do what he does, delivering from a low arm slot that creates deception and makes the ball really sneak up on batters, has resulted in a 1.16 ERA over 147 total innings for six different teams in the system. Mekkes hasn’t lingered at any one level for even 43 innings and his 25 appearances for the Iowa Cubs this season are the most he’s made for any Cubs affiliate.
He’ll tell you he’s done it by going out there and pitching with as little thought as possible, but it takes a lot of work between outings to make that happen. While the former Michigan State Spartan hasn’t had to make any big mechanical adjustments along the way, his repertoire has undergone an overhaul prompted by the organization’s advanced analytics.
“The two big things that I’ve kind of adjusted, especially the past year, is that I’ve worked a lot more on throwing my changeup,” Mekkes offered. “You could probably count on one hand the amount of times I threw it to righties the last 20 years of my life before this year.
“This year I kind of like had to work it in, especially in Triple-A, and learn to throw it to both righties and lefties. Same with my slider. Just try to add a third pitch in there that those guys have to think about and kind of try to give me a little extra advantage.
“I used to throw a lot of two-seams to lefties and mostly four-seams to righties. But with our analytical work through the Cubs organization we’ve kind of realized that my two-seam gets hit a lot more than my four-seam because my four-seam kind of has like, I don’t want to say rise, but it has ride to it. And it just kind of plays up in the zone.
“So we’ve tried to scrap the two-seam and throw a lot more four-seams. I still throw a two-seam every now and then to go into righties, but it’s just trying to make that adjustment to mainly four-seams.”
In addition to what he throws, there’s also the matter of how he throws. Specifically, going after hitters and becoming the kind of strike-thrower the Cubs have long coveted in their bullpen. After striking out 30 and walking 13 (2.31 K/BB) in 22.1 innings for AA Tennessee this season, Mekkes posted 41 K’s with 16 walks (2.56 K/BB) over 31.1 AAA innings.
He can also work more than an inning at a time, a real luxury as starters are being lifted earlier than ever these days. Mekkes recorded at least four outs in 19 of his 41 appearances in 2018 and went two innings on eight occasions between Tennessee and Iowa.
“I’ve always kind of been, not effectively wild, but I’ll pitch a walk every now and then,” he said. “And I’ve tried to cut down on that and just attack every single hitter. It’s a lot easier to get hitters out when you’re ahead in the count than it is behind in the count, so I learned pretty quick that you’ve just got to attack hitters.
“I’m comfortable really going as many innings as they tell me to. I’m definitely a batter-to-batter guy, I don’t look too far ahead. I’m not too worried about who’s on deck or who’s coming up that inning, I just kind of take it one batter at a time until they say I’m done pitching.”
Mekkes’s laid-back demeanor and desire to improve on the field make him receptive to coaching and what the metrics are saying about his performance. When it comes to other aspects of the organization’s development plan, however, he isn’t quite so bullish. Though he understands the value of the Cubs’ ballyhooed mental skills program, he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to its tenets as readily as others in the system have since its inception.
“I’ve never really been someone that is too much into like meditation and stuff like that,” he said. “I try to think as little as possible, especially when I’m pitching. So I definitely see the benefits in all of it but I’ve never really been someone that’s been too into it.”
But while thinking as little as possible might be a good strategy on the mound, it isn’t exactly an option these days. After finishing up the minor league season with Iowa, Mekkes headed back to East Lansing to finish up his degree in interdisciplinary studies. You can bet he won’t stay there any longer than he has to, as the siren song of diamonds that don’t have to be shoveled in the winter is far too powerful to avoid.
“I’ve played baseball since I was four years old and I know it’s kind of clichéd to say, but ever since I was probably 10 in Little League, I started thinking seriously that all I ever wanted to do was play baseball for the rest of my life.
“The offseason for me is probably the worst time of the year because I just get bored. The first two weeks, I enjoy being home, seeing my family. But after that I just start looking forward to spring training again because I don’t know what else to do with myself.”
The next three months or so are going to be all about hitting the weight room and staying in shape, since the reliever will give his right arm a break from throwing until late December. Then it’s a matter of putting in work to improve upon what is already a strong resume, perhaps by working to better leveraging his massive frame.
“I don’t really use my height too well, more just my legs,” Mekkes admitted. “So I guess I’ve never really gotten used to using the height factor of it, but I’ve just kind of tried to focus more on the length and using my size the best I can.”
But no matter what he works on or how those secondaries develop, there’s no question as to where Mekkes is going when he’s got to get an out with the game on the line.
“Fastball, fastball,” he said with conviction. “Because I’ve always been someone that if you’re going to beat me, you’re going to beat my best pitch and my best pitch is my fastball. So he might be ready for it but I’d rather he hit that than he hits a hanging slider or something else.”
There’s so much to love about baseball, but is there anything better than those mano-a-mano exchanges where everyone knows the deal and it’s just about who does it better. It reminds me of Kerry Wood facing Barry Bonds or Rick Vaughn squaring off against Clu Haywood. Don’t think, just throw. That’s what Mekkes is all about.
It’s worked pretty well so far for the 24-year-old who has already proven himself in the minors and still has plenty of room to learn and grow as a pitcher. And if he’s just able to keep doing what he’s done at every stop along his baseball journey so far, his next destination could well be Chicago. That’ll be the case if he has anything to say about it.
“I’m going to try and do everything I can to come into camp ready and make a push for the bigs out of camp,” Mekkes said. “So we’ll see what happens there.”