Dakota Mekkes was absent from my short list of observations from the Cubs’ first two games of the weekend, but not because he wasn’t deserving of inclusion. Quite the contrary, I wanted to knock out a separate post after the the burly sidewinder threw what may have been the best inning out of the nine pitchers the Cubs sent to the mound against Oakland Saturday night.
More than the specific results, which completed the Cactus League opener, it was Mekkes’s velocity that stood out. You’d expect a dude who goes 6-foot-7 and pushes three bills to push three digits on the radar gun, but that hasn’t been the case in the past. Though Mekkes could probably beat out Adam Shaheen for a spot on the Bears roster, he wasn’t added to the Cubs’ 40-man in part because his fastball typically sits 91-93 mph.
That velo plays up in a big way due to the deception created by a low three-quarters arm slot, but Mekkes found out quickly that Triple-A hitters weren’t fooled as easily as those he’d carved up at the lower levels.
“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 last October. “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.”
His focus at the time of our conversation was on tightening up his slider, which has always been more “sweepy” than the kind of sharp-breaking offering that gets swings and misses. While it’s impossible to tell from such a small sample exactly what Mekkes has accomplished in that regard, Saturday’s debut saw the fastball absolutely jumping out of his right hand.
According to Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter, Mekkes sat 91-94 and touched 96 with the heater as his velocity increased over the course of the inning. I know I said earlier that results aren’t really that important, particularly in the 9th inning of a 12-2 romp in the first spring game, but sandwiching a groundout between swinging strikeouts is a helluva debut.
More than that, Mekkes is already displaying the kind of heat we’ve not seen from him even at the peak of the regular season. Far be it for me to suggest that he might still have another tick or two in him, but that’s far from an unreasonable belief given how early it is. Even if he plateaus at 96, which will most definitely play, the real key for Mekkes moving forward is just keeping his throwing motion clean and efficient.
Asked for the secret to his extra heat, Mekkes told CI via text that he “just a lost a little bit of weight.” Man, what happens if gets down to 200 el bees? In addition to improved fitness, repeating his outstanding performance is a matter of maintaining his focus on the mound.
“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.”
At the risk of further overselling a single outing, I’m a firm believer that the mental side of the game can be more important that the physical. That was absolutely the case for Mekkes, who could sometimes fall into a chicken-egg quandary in which poor performance would lead him to press mentally, which would hurt his confidence further. Getting out to a strong start sets an early precedent that he can get it done.
What’s more, having that fastball hitting the mid-90’s means creating a lot more margin for error. Between his size and delivery, Mekkes is generating an effective velocity that’s probably north of 100 mph. For those who aren’t familiar with that concept, it just means that having a release point farther toward third base and closer to the plate makes hitters perceive the pitch as being thrown much harder than it actually is.
Among the other trends to monitor this spring, you should definitely be checking to see how Mekkes progresses over the coming weeks. If he’s able to maintain or even increase his velocity while limiting walks, you can bet the Cubs will create a spot for him soon enough.
Effross looks good as well
Though not nearly as heralded as Mekkes and not in contention for a roster spot, righty Scott Effross looked good in very limited action Sunday afternoon. After reaching his developmental ceiling at Double-A Tennessee last season, the Cubs approached Effross about making a significant change to his mechanics in order to take another step forward.
He spent nearly two months in Mesa adapting to a sidearm delivery, then was assigned back to high-A Myrtle Beach for most of August and made up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League. Effross posted 13 strikeouts with just one walk across 14.2 innings for the Pelicans, then struck out nine more with one walk in 10 innings with the Mesa Solar Sox.
He entered Sunday’s game with two outs and the bases loaded Sunday, then immediately allowed a two-run double. That’s what the box score says, anyway. If you saw the game, you know that the duck snort between second and center from DJ Peters probably doesn’t fall under normal circumstances. Similar weak contact from Omar Estevez was tracked down by Ian Miller to end the inning.
The sidearm delivery gives righties a really tough look and it appears to have helped Effross with the slider that had previously been something of a mystery for him. In addition to getting good movement on his breaking ball, his fastball appeared to have a little ride. If he’s able to get lefties out as well, Effross could make some noise in the upper levels of the minors this season.