The look will always draw as much attention as the results for A’s rookie Daniel Mengden.
From the old-school handlebar mustache he wears to his unorthodox delivery on the mound, everything about the 23-year-old right-hander appears to defy convention.
That’s a mentality that began taking root in Mengden from the time he was introduced to baseball as a youngster in Houston.
“He’d go round and round with coaches all the time,” his father, Joe, recalled in a phone interview. “They’d say, ‘You gotta hold your hands like this, swing like this. Have your arm slot here.’ I’d say, ‘Daniel, just do what feels natural and feels right to you.’”
Blazing his own path, Mengden has taken the express route to the A’s starting rotation. A fourth-round pick of Houston in 2014, Mengden was acquired by Oakland last July in the trade that sent Scott Kazmir to the Astros. He hadn’t pitched above Single-A before this season. But he shined with Double-A Midland and Triple-A Nashville, posting a combined 5-1 record and 1.19 ERA in 11 starts.
The A’s, needing to plug holes in a rotation that’s been decimated by injuries and inconsistency, called him up June 11. In his first two career starts, Mengden has allowed just three earned runs with 12 strikeouts in 12 innings, though he’s still searching for his first victory.
If fans were intrigued by their first impression of Mengden, so were his A’s teammates. Max Muncy recalls the first time he saw Mengden’s windup, which includes a pause and a double-pump of sorts as his hands go above his head.
“At first I saw him do it and I thought, ‘There’s no way he’s being serious with this,’” a smiling Muncy said. “I thought he was joking with it.”
Flash back to Mengden’s freshman season at Texas A&M. Things weren’t going great on the mound, and Aggies’ coaches told him he needed to become more of a pitcher, less of a thrower. Mengden discovered his current delivery almost by accident.
“One day I was just kind of messing around in the bullpen, doing kinda some funky stuff with my windup,” Mengden said. “I threw a couple pitches to our catcher just joking around and he said, ‘That’s not bad.’ And so we kind of just kept with it, started using it more and more. I used it in a start. I threw well, and that’s all she wrote from there.”
Mengden has an appreciation for some of the game’s more unique deliveries. His father gave him books with pictures of the legendary Satchel Paige, and Mengden grew up loving former Marlins lefty Dontrelle Willis. But he says his own motion is grounded in solid fundamentals.
“Some hitters have crazy beforehand stuff,” Mengden said. “But if you really dissect it, they (eventually) get in a normal position. All the herky-jerky stuff I do is nothing. It’s more, I guess, a rhythm and timing thing for me.”
As for the mustache? Mengden says his coach at Texas A&M was strict about facial hair, and he’d only let players grow what he grew himself, which was a normal mustache. In a good-natured effort to one-up his coach, Mengden began cultivating the Rollie Fingers look.
“That’s a great mustache,” fellow A’s pitcher Zach Neal said. “I’ve seen some pictures of him without it, and he doesn’t look the same. He looks a lot younger. It’s a good look. He pulls it off.”
Mengden’s stuff on the mound, obviously, will determine whether he sticks in the majors. His fastball sits anywhere between 92-95 miles per hour, and he also throws a changeup, slider, curve and a cutter that A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson helped him develop.
A number of Astros prospects were on the A’s radar leading up to last summer’s Kazmir trade, including Mengden, first baseman A.J. Reed, third baseman J.D. Davis and others. Highly touted catcher Jacob Nottingham wound up being the most hyped prospect coming to Oakland in exchange for Kazmir, but Mengden was the important second piece that helped the deal come to fruition (the A’s would proceed to trade Nottingham to the Brewers in the deal that landed them Khris Davis).
Grady Fuson, a special assistant to A’s general manager David Forst, recalls scouting Mengden in Houston’s farm system. At the time, Mengden was pitching some games in relief. And though Fuson was quite impressed with Mengden’s pitching repertoire, there was more that caught his eye.
“When he came out from the bullpen, he sprinted like (former Giants reliever) Craig Lefferts,” Fuson said. “In between innings, he was the first guy on the mound before anybody got out there. He was just unique. When you see a guy that busts his ass, it’s a positive look.”
Now Mengden has a chance to earn some staying power in the A’s rotation. Rich Hill and Sean Manaea are likely to return from the disabled list soon, but if Mengden keeps up the form from his first two starts, he’s got a chance to stick.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Mengden said. “I just want to take it and run with it as much as I can.”