Minor League Cubs prospect profile: Dakota Mekkes
There is perhaps no greater compliment to a pitcher than saying he makes hitters uncomfortable in the box. The phrase is often attached to left-handed pitchers like Randy Johnson, Aroldis Chapman and more recently, Josh Hader. For right-handed pitchers, it is often attached to pitchers like Jordan Walden or Carter Capps. Both were relievers who employed hops off the mound to up the perceived velocity of their pitches.
Dakota Mekkes, a 6-foot-7, 275-pound reliever from Michigan State University, possesses neither of these southpaw or hoppy characteristics, but his extension to the plate, size and repertoire make him one of the most intriguing relief arms in the Cubs system.
The Cubs drafted Mekkes in the 10th round during MLB’s 2016 First-Year Player Draft. He struck out 109 batters in 69 innings, posting a 2.35 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in two seasons. From the second he entered the Cubs professional ranks, he continued to showcase his inherent ability to generate swing and miss. In his first three years in the minor leagues, he struck out 190 batters in 147 innings with a miniscule 1.16 ERA.
In 2019, Mekkes ran into the first bumps of his career. While his strikeout rate remained stable, his home run total spiked. He allowed 4 home runs in his first three seasons in the minors and 6 in last season alone. While some of his struggle can be attributed to the unexpected spike in home runs in Triple-A last season, his walk rate also rose to 15 percent, the highest of his minor league career. His struggles continued during Spring Training this season, as he walked 6 batters in 5.1 innings, allowing 5 earned runs.
Many would expect Mekkes’ size to imply he touches the upper 90s, but he tops out around 95 mph and sits between 90-93 mph. His plus extension towards home plate gives hitters a fraction of a second less to react to pitches coming out of his hand, a distinct advantage. As organizations like Driveline Baseball have researched, size does not always mean more velocity, as efficiency of a pitcher’s arm speed is equally as important, among other factors.
Mekkes’ key advantage beyond his size are his slider and changeup. With the recent changes to MLB rules requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters or complete an inning, it puts every reliever’s ability to get both left- and right-handed hitters out under the microscope. Both of Mekkes’ offspeed pitches grade out above average. This is reflected in his splits against each handedness of hitter. Although he is slightly stronger versus right-handed hitters, only last season was the difference notable.
The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma has also reported that the big right-hander changed his slider from a horizontal pitch to more of a vertical, gyroscopic slider (think of a football spiral) in the Cubs’ Pitch Lab this spring. Aside from making the pitch more efficient, this can also make the pitch more successful versus opposite-handed hitters in some cases, giving him another weapon to improve his splits.
Mekkes has the repertoire to be a major league reliever in the modern age, but to have an impact this coming shortened season, his walk rate probably needs to improve. Big-bodied pitchers like him can often have difficulty syncing up and repeating their mechanics to improve their control. The 6-foot-10 Johnson, for example, posted back-to-back seasons with a walk rate above 15 percent in 1991-1992 before cutting it down to a manageable mark.
With strong speculation that rosters will expand beyond the 26-man roster agreed upon this offseason if a season is to be played, a reliever like Mekkes with such distinct characteristics compared to the average starting pitcher could be in high demand to deepen a bullpen. Mekkes could be that arm for the Cubs.