Feature Photo: Dakota Mekkes, RHP, Cubs
At six feet, seven inches tall and over 250 pounds, 22-year-old Dakota Mekkes (RHP, Cubs) is built like he should be the bane of opposing defenses in Division 1 football is instead hurtling his prodigious frame from sixty feet, six inches away, and opposing hitters can’t do much to score any runs against him.
Mekkes has gone from just a soft-tossing righty pitching for his small high school in the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan to the terror of both the Midwest and Carolina Leagues in just a matter of a few years, and he has a unique delivery to thank for that.
Instead of using his full height to create downward plane on his pitches, Mekkes practically launches his body forward at the batters he faces, cutting away at the distance between his release point and the strike zone by exploding off of his right leg.
Mekkes has always pitched this way, but he still hadn’t quite perfected it when he walked on at Michigan State in 2015. Mekkes pitched two seasons for MSU prior to being drafted by the Cubs in the 10th round (#314 overall) of the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
“No coach has ever tried to change it,” Mekkes said of his delivery. “I don’t think I have ever really tweaked it at all. I’ve pitched that way since I can remember.”
Skylar Meade, pitching coach at Michigan State University, said that Mekkes’ style of delivery combined with his height makes for a release point that is far closer to the batter than most pitchers.
“He had the closest release point of anyone in the 2016 draft,” Meade said. “And with a three-quarter arm slot, the ball is hidden behind him for a long time during his delivery. It’s a nightmare to hit against.”
Mekkes played football as a freshman and sophomore in high school, and basketball for all four years at Jenison High School, a school of about 1100 students just outside of Grand Rapids, Mich. However, baseball became a nearly full-time sport for him rather quickly. Mekkes started participating in the amateur showcase circuit in 2012, the summer after his junior year when he played for the West Michigan Elite. He did not attract much attention from scouts or bigger colleges like MSU, however.
Other than Mid-American Conference schools like Toledo and Western Michigan, there weren’t many coming to see Mekkes pitch in high school. A scout from the Detroit Tigers would come every now and then, Mekkes said, but at the time, his mid-80s fastball wasn’t cutting it.
When the velocity started to pick up and Mekkes participated in a showcase at nearby Grand Valley State University, he drew the attention of Graham Sikes, assistant baseball coach at Michigan State, who began recruiting him.
“At that point [coming out of high school], I wasn’t getting noticed by pro scouts yet, so it came down to Toledo or Michigan State,” Mekkes said.
The allure of playing for a Big Ten school was too much to resist, so Mekkes took a chance and walked on in East Lansing. And early on, Meade noticed that there was skill in his new pitcher, but it was largely unrefined. The Spartans eased him in during that first year, focusing primarily on shortening his arm action at first. Mekkes redshirted in his freshman year, and pitched for the Spartans for the first time in 2015, a full year after he had left high school.
“He had this longer arm motion, so he went to the Texas Collegiate League in the summer of 2015 to get more reps so that he was able to understand how to shorten up the arm action,” Meade said. “He had this really big arm swing, and his arm would go way behind his back.”
As Mekkes improved his delivery, his pitching improved, and his confidence rose. But even then, he took his coaches at Michigan State by surprise as a sophomore.
“We knew he was going to have a good sophomore year, but I don’t think any of us saw what was coming,” Meade said.
After redshirting in 2014 and then posting a 5.25 ERA in 12 innings in 2015, Mekkes lit up the Big Ten in his final season with a 1.74 ERA in 57 innings. He struck out 96 batters and gave up only 26 hits, giving scouts a preview of his potential as a professional this year.
Mekkes’ success was all about mastering his delivery, and learning to repeat it consistently. Mekkes said he was never tempted to pitch differently, even as his height would have naturally created a downward plane. Instead, he and Meade stuck to creating deception by hiding the ball and cutting down on the space between his release point and when the ball crossed the plate.
“It’s pretty deceptive because I hide the ball for as long as I can,” Mekkes said. “I launch myself off of the rubber and use my length.”
Mekkes’ delivery can make opposing hitters sometimes think the ball is rising – an effect that is not possible with any kind of overhand delivery. What hitters are instead seeing is the absence of downward motion on the pitch — and that helps make his pitches appear faster than they actually are. He sits in the low-to-mid 90s on his two-seam fastball most of the time, but his former pitching coach said that was never how it appeared to batters.
“With the lower arm slot that he has, the ball gives the perception that it’s gaining speed,” Meade said. “So 93 plays like 98 because it’s so close and it has tremendous backspin.”
Mekkes’ success in college carried over into the pros – and then some – and this year, he had a full opportunity to showcase how devastating he can be on the mound. After pitching only 20 innings in 2016 between the Cubs’ Arizona Rookie League team and Short-season ball in the Northwest League, Mekkes started the 2017 campaign with the Single-A South Bend Cubs of the Midwest League.
In 18 appearances there, Mekkes dominated to the tune of a 0.58 ERA in 31 innings, striking out 47 and holding opposing hitters to a meager .133 batting average. On June 10, barely a year removed from college ball, Mekkes was promoted to High A Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the Carolina League, where he managed to pitch even more impressively.
With his new team, Mekkes pitched through June and July without giving up a run. After 24 1/3 innings with the Pelicans, he had a 0.00 ERA.
And then on August 1, the Frederick Keys touched him up for three runs in an inning and a third. Mekkes responded by throwing scoreless innings in his next four appearances and finishing the year with an ERA of 0.98.
Mekkes’ stock has risen higher and faster than anyone else the Cubs took in the 2016 draft. His status in 2018 will depend on whether he can keep from walking too many batters, a struggle he admitted as his greatest obstacle going forward (he had a 4.2 BB/9 rate this year, against 11.3 SO/9). Mekkes has learned what all amateur pitchers do when they reach the full-season level of professional ball, and that’s that hitters don’t miss the mistake pitches as often, so going forward, he is striving to make even fewer mistakes on the mound than he did this season. For Mekkes, this will mean maintaining the simplified delivery that he developed at Michigan State and repeating it consistently.
In a time when the sport is enamored with high-powered fireballers who can use the leverage of their height to make the ball even harder to pick up and hit, Mekkes is an exception to the rule. So far, this seems to be working to his advantage, too. While batters might approach plate appearances against him expecting Mekkes to use his height to his advantage, they are instead treated to a diet of deception despite not having overwhelming speed, and this left them coming up virtually empty against him in 2017.
Going forward, Mekkes has the two-seamer that he calls his “bread and butter” to go with a slider that he is gradually getting a better feel for, and a changeup that he said was his best out-pitch when his feel for it was right. Because of how well he pitched this year, Mekkes is a safe bet to start 2018 with Double-A Tennessee, and his first look at the bullpen at Wrigley Field could come next September.