At 6-foot-7 and somewhere over two and a half bills, Dakota Mekkes more closely resembles a blocking tight end than a reliever. But with his unconventional delivery, the big righty’s approach more closely resembles the shiftiness of a slot receiver. Which is to say he doesn’t light up radar guns with elite velocity, relying instead on the deception generated by his low arm slot and extreme length.
Those factors allowed Mekkes to blaze through the lower levels of the system after being selected in the 10th round of the 2016 draft. He played for two affiliates in each of his first three seasons, making his way to Triple-A Iowa and posting a 1.44 ERA over 31.1 innings there in 2018. He seemed like a sure bet to log some innings in Chicago this past season, especially with the Cubs’ bullpen woes, but remained in Des Moines as he struggled with his control.
The Cubs now face a decision with Mekkes, who will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft if they don’t protect him on the 40-man roster by November 20. Will they look at his relatively high 6.20 BB/9 and 5.29 ERA this past season, or career marks of 11.51 K/9 and a 2.20 ERA? If it’s not the latter, they’d be making a big mistake.
Mekkes is probably never going to be a guy who exhibits pinpoint control because a little wildness is part and parcel with his delivery, but there are some things he can work on to be far more effective. From fine-tuning his mechanics, improving his sequencing, and getting a little more bite on his slider, Mekkes is hoping several minor adjustments will get him to the majors.
“It took me a little while to adapt, to realize that, ‘Hey, 0-2, they’re not going to chase my fastball up every single time.'” Mekkes told Cubs Insider from his offseason home in Michigan. “I’m gonna have to find something else it’s gonna strike ’em out or get ’em to ground out or maybe not go for the strikeout every single hitter. Maybe just pound a fastball in 0-2 and get a weak grounder.
“So I think that was the biggest thing I learned throughout the year, to be a little more creative in ways of getting guys out instead of trying to just blow a fastball by ’em every single time.”
One other aspect of Mekkes’s stat line that really jumps out is the home runs allowed. After giving up four total dingers over his first three seasons, he saw six of his pitches sent over the wall in 2019. Not coincidentally, the already hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League saw a 60% increase in homers last season after switching to the same juiced baseballs that saw home run records falling across MLB.
“Honestly, for me — and I think a couple other guys that I would talk to on the team — I would definitely say the ball flew more off the bat,” Mekkes admitted. “There were some this year that — not even just me, but other guys would give up — that I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s a pop up, easy F9 routine fly ball,’ and it would just keep going and going and it was crazy.
Mekkes did say that the MLB balls were easier to grip, particularly when it came to getting a feel for the changeup and slider, but the movement was different for some pitchers. For instance, guys who would come up from Double-A on the strength of their two-seam and/or cutter would often have difficulty adjusting to the new baseballs as they learned how to best manipulate them.
“So I don’t know for sure if there’s a difference, but I would say just from watching throughout the year the ball seemed a little different and it definitely flew a bit further than we all thought it would.”
Maybe a switch back to the less lively balls — something MLB is rumored to have done for the playoffs — will help Mekkes, though it’s really a matter of getting more aggressive with hitters. That means not falling behind early and being better able to finish at-bats late, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“I think the biggest thing for me coming up this offseason that I want to work on is…I feel comfortable in my mechanics, I think I just need to get more consistent with them,” Mekkes said. “I feel like times when I would go out there and walk two or three guys, I would lose it. I don’t know what it was, it was like a little thing and I would just…say I’m pulling off my front side or something like that and my arm’s falling behind and everything’s sailing. So I think that’s the biggest thing I’m gonna work on is getting more consistent with my mechanics.
“Another thing I want to try to add is a tighter slider, because my slider right now is like 76-78 and it’s not really a strikeout [pitch]. It’s more of a fool you, get ahead when it’s 0-0, first pitch maybe slip a slider strike one. I have really good feel for that pitch, so I want to keep that in my repertoire. But I’m trying work on more of a put-away pitch, whether that be my changeup or a tighter slider.”
There’s no better way to do that than by getting into that vaunted Pitch Lab that has helped other Cubs like Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck to redefine their breaking balls. Their success in 2019 was predicated largely on the knuckle curve, which isn’t really as easy for someone with a lower delivery to pull off. That’s why Mekkes is working on tightening that slider.
Some have compared his “sweepy” breaking ball to Adam Ottavino’s, though Mekkes admits that his isn’t quite as sharp or as fast. Or as good, he joked. But because the pitches have a similar shape and are delivered from similar arm slots, that lab work was aimed at making small changes to the grip and really dialing in the release point.
It’s not a matter of putting specific numbers and measurements in a pitcher’s head, but rather attempting to establish muscle memory to the point that the feel for the pitch matches up with the date for optimal results. When you’re talking about the difference between strike three and ball four, an extra tenth of an inch here or hint of finger pressure there can yield the desired results.
Those results didn’t live up to what either Mekkes or the Cubs expected this past season, but that isn’t likely to sway the decision of whether or not to protect him on the roster. After all, he’s been one of the system’s most consistent performers over the course of his young career. For as much as that choice could impact his career, though, Mekkes says he’s not really too concerned about it.
“I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t heard really anything from them and I haven’t really asked my agent too much about it,” the righty said nonchalantly. “I know at the end of the day, the season’s over, so it at this point I can’t do anything about it. So it’s just kind of whatever happens, happens.
“I don’t think about it too much, but yeah, it’ll definitely be interesting because obviously it’s my draft class’s Rule 5, so it’ll be cool to see. I’m guessing a couple guys from my class will be added, at least. So it’ll be cool to see some guys get put on there and yeah, I’m kind of looking forward to it to see what happens.”
The real key for Mekkes moving forward, particularly if he’s to have success at the next level, is to minimize the number of times he falls behind early in the count. He’s got to get those mechanics in line more consistently so that he’s not letting the batter get ahead 2-0 or 3-1 and then having to battle back. Then when he does get into those two-strike counts, it doesn’t have to be all about going for the K.
There may be another factor in his favor this spring, as he’ll be getting something of a fresh slate with a new manager. David Ross has been around the organization for a while, but he’s going to have a different perspective on a bullpen that is going to have to be overhauled in a big way. Mekkes didn’t know who would be managing the Cubs next season when we spoke, but I asked him to share his thoughts on what he prefers in a leader.
“I think you need a manager that…I don’t wanna say is buddy-buddy with the players, because you can’t be best friends, obviously,” Mekkes said. “But you need someone that can develop a good relationship with them and somebody that the players can trust. I think that’s the biggest key is that you never doubt your manager’s decision. Whatever he decides to do, that’s what is the best decision for the team.
“And at the same time, I think you need someone that can hold guys accountable. You don’t need ’em freaking out every single day about something, but if someone does something unacceptable, they can’t be afraid to get in your face and make sure that never happens again. The biggest key for me is trust with your manager and knowing that they’re putting you in the best position to win every single day.”
Boom, nailed it. Whether he was doing it consciously or not, Mekkes was describing everything the Cubs laid out when they explained why they’d hired Ross. Being able to establish trusting relationships that allow for fun while also keeping the door open to honest criticism is incredibly important when it comes to getting the best out of a diverse group of athletes.
Will Dakota Mekkes be part of that diverse group in Chicago for the 2020 season? We’ll have a partial answer by November 20, then it’ll come down to how he looks in spring training and perhaps during the season. If he figures out the shape of that slider and gets those mechanics dialed in, well, you might just be able to purchase a CABEZÓN jersey come Players’ Weekend.