Adalberto Mejia: High Floor or More?
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsMejia ‘hasn’t gotten a ton of ink’ at Twins Daily this offseason. Those are Tom Froemming’s words, I can’t pull that sentence off. The point remains, Mejia can be an afterthought in a Twins rotation resplendent with uncertain back end options. He’s most likely the leading candidate for the fifth starter role in 2018, but should he be?
The Twins acquired Mejia in a sell-high swap of Eduardo Nunez, traded on the back of an outstanding(ly lucky) first half for Minnesota in 2016. Mejia was one of the Giants’ better thought of prospects (No. 10 according to Baseball Prospectus) in a weaker system. At the time, he was thought of more as having a high floor than high ceiling. After an up and down 2017 season, what does Mejia offer the Twins? And what does he need to do to take a step forward and cement his position as a more consistent back of the rotation starter?
Let’s start with what Mejia has. He’s a 6-foot-3 lefty, who checks in at 195 lbs. according to FanGraphs (lies!). He relies in a pretty typical four-pitch mix. Mejia throws a four seam fastball (avg. 93 mph), a slider (avg. 84 mph), a changeup (avg. 84 mpg) and a sinker (avg. 92 mph). All four of his pitches have slightly above average velocity, but none of them are going to blow you away.
Mejia’s mechanics went through some adjustments over the course of the 2017 season. In April (a month in which Mejia struggled significantly) his release point was significantly lower on all four of his pitches than it was by the season’s end. His average fastball started the season with a release point of 6.0 ft. and finished with a release point of 6.31 ft., a significant difference. This ‘straightening up’ allowed Mejia to generate a little more vertical movement on all of his off-speed pitches as the season progressed. The graphs below track Mejia's vertical release point and vertical movement for his four primary pitches throughout the 2017 season.
In spite of this increase in movement, Mejia struggled to generate a consistently strong secondary pitch throughout the 2017 season. Mejia left a few of his sliders over the plate, which, with minimal break on the pitch, led to said few being crushed for home runs. His lack of a strong secondary pitch most impacted his fastball, however, allowing hitters to wait on it and tee off on the pitch to the tune of a .921 OPS. Mejia did split his breaking pitch mix between his slider and a curveball (which he threw around 10 percent of the time). Mejia’s curveball showed promise, registering at season’s end as his only plus pitch.
If there is one factor in determining whether Mejia can solidify himself as a solid back end option for the Twins, it is his fastball control. Overall, Mejia had an ugly walk rate of 4.04 BB/9 in 2017. Mejia was only able to generate 34 percent ground balls on his fastball. Looking at his heat map for first-pitch fastballs, it’s easy to see why. The heat map below shows the location of Mejia’s fastball when deployed as the first pitch to right-handed hitters. It’s notable that Mejia 1) struggles to find the zone and establish his fastball against RHH, and 2) Mejia leaves a considerable number of the fastballs which do find the strike zone over the middle of the plate.
One of the limitations of Mejia’s fastball in 2018 is how eminently hittable it is. This is noticeable in a comparison between Mejia’s fastball and that of Jose Berrios. O-Contact% measures the amount of contact hitters make with a particular pitch when it is thrown outside the strike zone. In 2017, opposing hitters made contact with around 60 percent of Berrios’ fastballs located outside the strike zone. For Mejia the figure was just under 80 percent. Over the course of the season, this equates to around 150 extra fastballs which weren’t in the strike zone getting contacted when comparing Berrios and Mejia.
When your fastball isn’t a plus pitch, that’s a big deal. Mejia doesn’t have the movement or velocity to blow people away or create much deception in his pitches. In order to be successful, he needs to develop his ability to control his fastball and command it using the strike zone more deliberately.
Finally, it’s interesting to note exactly when Mejia got himself into his biggest messes on the mound. You might think that a pitcher struggling with control would walk more hitters with men on base, but these situations were actually where Mejia clamped down. His greatest struggles came in low leverage situations in which he had a BB/9 of 5.34, as opposed to 1.29 in high-leverage situations. To put this another way, Mejia had a BB/9 of 5.73 when the bases where empty, as opposed to just 2.67 with men on base.
Mejia remains an interesting option for the Twins going into the 2018 season. He will remain a bargain, given the price Minnesota paid for him. His 2018 impact is really dependent on two key factors moving forwards: Getting ahead of hitters and improving one of his breaking pitches to offset his fastball more effectively. If Mejia can take steps forward in these areas, the Twins should have a solid No. 5.
Who do you think is the favorite for the Twins fifth starting pitching roster spot ahead of spring training?
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