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Even amidst the continued MLB lockout and transaction freeze, the Kansas City Royals signed 29-year-old right-hander Daniel Mengden to a minor-league deal on Tuesday.
Mengden, a 6-1, 215-pound right-hander from Houston, pitched in the majors from 2016-20 with the Oakland Athletics, going 17-20 with a 4.64 ERA in 60 appearances (48 starts). In 2021, he took his talents across the Pacific Ocean to South Korea, hence why he was eligible to be signed.
Daniel Mengden’s Story
Drafted in 2014 in the fourth round out of Texas A&M by the Houston Astros, Mengden was dealt to Oakland in July 2015 in a deal that shipped Scott Kazmir to Houston. Shooting up the A’s system, he was called up after posting a 1.67 ERA in 13 starts at Triple-A Nashville in 2016, making his MLB debut on June 11, 2016—barely two years after being drafted.
His first MLB season was a disaster, going 2-9 with a 6.50 ERA in 14 starts. However, there were some positives. He struck out 71 batters in 72.0 innings, while his .347 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and 4.34 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) suggesting that his ERA should’ve been substantially lower.
Sure enough, over the subsequent seasons, results improved and he posted a cumulative 4.06 ERA over that span. Oddly enough, his strikeout rate nose-dived from essentially a strikeout per inning as a rookie to just 6.0 K/9 over a fairly large sample size: 230.2 innings. Consequently, in a stark reverse of his rookie campaign, Mengden actually considerably out-performed his FIP, which was 4.66 over that span.
Mengden also was bit by the injury bug, fracturing a bone in his foot during a spring training bullpen session in 2017 that cost him a month of the regular season. He also missed nearly two more months with a stress fracture in his rib. He did pitch well upon returning to Oakland in September, tossing a complete game shutout on September 15.
He threw a career-high 115.0 innings in 2018, but missed time against with a right foot sprain (the same foot he broke the year before). After an inconsistent 2019 where he was up and down from the minors and also bounced in and out of the A’s rotation, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow in February 2020. Consequently, he only tossed 12.0 inning in the shortened 2020 campaign before heading to Korea on a 1-year, $425,000 deal with the Kia Tigers.
Mengden finally was able to stay healthy on the other side of the Pacific. Making 21 starts (second-most on the team), he went 8-3 with a 3.60 ERA (well below the league average of 4.44), striking out 104 batters and walking just 35 in 120.0 innings.
Additionally, he posted a very solid 1.20 WHIP and 2.6 BB/9 rate, a stark departure from his last two seasons in Oakland, when he issued 4.3 BB/9 and a rather poor 1.486 WHIP. For a pitcher who needed to rehabilitate his career, a year abroad appeared to do exactly the trick.
What Daniel Mengden Brings to The Royals
Unfortunately, we do not have any sort of advanced numbers for Mengden’s stint in Korea, so what we are left to rely on are his Statcast numbers in Oakland. He primarily relies on a four-pitch mix: a 4-seam fastball, cutter, changeup, and curveball. In 2018-19, he also increasingly relied on a sinker, but appeared to all but ditch it during his abbreviated 2020 stint. During 2020, he ditched his slider as well, though who knows if that’s a permanent development.
He relies heavily on his four-seamer, throwing it over 50% of the time in 2016-17 and again in 2020. He added his cutter in 2018 and increasingly incorporated it into his repertoire, going from 6.5% usage in 2018 to 14.5% then 26.8% usage in 2019-20. This is a key development due to the fact that he’s not a hard thrower by any means.
Mengden averaged 92.8 MPH with his fastball in 2016, slowly declining to 91.5 in 2019, then just 90 MPH in 2020’s small sample. By utilizing the cutter, which operates in the 86-88 range, he helps neutralize the lack of velocity by missing barrels, if not missing bats entirely. Likewise, nothing special jumps off the page about his changeup or curveball, which he combines to use 20-25% of the time.
As a result, Daniel Mengden is more of a pitcher out of another era, relying on movement, command, and smarts to record outs, instead of breathing fire, pumping gas, and hunting down as many swings and misses as possible. That said, his percentile rankings are a little confounding.
Not surprisingly, he’s ranked near the bottom of the majors in areas like velocity, whiff rate, and strikeout rate throughout his career. However in 2019 (albeit in just 59.2 innings), he was in the 73rd percentile in barrel percentage, while his hard-hit percentage was about in the middle (53rd percentile), indicating that he was indeed inducing weaker contact, despite having whiff and chase rates among the very worst (1st percentile in both) in the major leagues.
What does this mean for his chances with the Royals? Well, first of all, we need to resolve the lockout and see if Mengden pitches his way onto the MLB roster. I had written about the pitching staff’s struggles in 2021 and suggested that more veteran help in the rotation wouldn’t hurt. Mengden doesn’t quite fit the bill, but he was in the majors two years before the vaunted 2018 draft class was even selected, so he has seniority at least. Again, though, a spot on the 2022 big-league roster is far from a sure thing.
If he does wind up in KC, he could slide into the bottom of the rotation or into a multi-inning/spot starter role out of the bullpen similar to what Ervin Santana filled in 2021. With his profile, he’s best suited for a team with a large ballpark (check) and strong defense (and check). While his ceiling is rather low, likely that of fourth or fifth starter, Daniel Mengden’s signing is still a low-risk gamble that could pay off nicely—if he stays healthy.
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