April 18, 2007
Kevin Mench came to Milwaukee as a piece in the trade centering around an exchange of Carlos Lee and Francisco Cordero, and he subsequently lost playing time to the younger corner outfielders in the Brewers organization. After a winter loaded with speculation that one or the other of them would be dealt, Mench and the recently profiled Geoff Jenkins were turned into the platoon we can now affectionately refer to as Menchkins; this time-sharing arrangement should prove to be very useful for the Brewers if they stick to it for the duration of the season. That already seems to be up in the air, with Mench stealing at-bats from Corey Hart, a better hitter than Mench with much higher upside going forward.
Kevin Ford Mench starred in college baseball at the University of Delaware for three years prior to the Texas Rangers making him selection #118 in the 1999 draft. Mench was named America East Conference All-Star Rookie of the Year and American East Conference All-Star Outfielder in 1997, America East Conference All-Star Player of the Year, America East Conference All-Star Outfielder, and 2nd Team College All-American Outfielder in 1998. In 1999 he was named an America East Conference All-Star Outfielder and America East Conference All-Star Player of the Year again in 1999. He led NCAA Division I baseball in home runs in 1998 with 33.
The awards did not stop there, as he collected two more honors before 1999 was out: Mench was also named an Appalachian League All-Star Outfielder and a Short-Season A All-Star Outfielder:
Mench blasted 16 homers in 260 at-bats in the Appalachian League as a 21-year-old. That's an impressive total, even at that age. When you combine his .398 BABIP with the the issue of him being old for his level, then you have a problem. The only way for that lofty BABIP to be somewhat sustainable would be to have a massively high line-drive rate, one that would be nearly impossible to maintain. This did not stop Mench from tearing up High-A Charlotte in the Florida State League the next season:
Mench's BABIP fell to .349; still high, but not as outlandish as the previous campaign's. He continued his extra-base hit rampage, and increased his walk rate while striking out less often. This was a dominating performance, although Mench was 22 and still in the lower levels of the minor leagues. The problem that represents would manifest itself a bit more the following season, when Mench was finally promoted to Double-A Tulsa at age 23. Baseball Prospectus 2001 was openly excited about Mench's future:
Jamey Newberg, who knows more about the Rangers' minor leaguers than any human being really should, raved about Kevin Mench. It's easy to see why. He already has a tremendously powerful stroke, pretty decent plate discipline, and an uncanny ability to adjust the head of his bat in mid-swing. He reminds me of Troy Glaus offensively. Defensively, he reminds me of Ben Grieve or Greg Luzinski. Mench could hit major-league pitching this season but probably won't reach DeathPenaltyLand until 2003. He's the best prospect in the organization overall.
The idea that he could hit major league pitching as of 2001 strikes me as odd, since he was 21 and 22 and destroying the lower levels of the minors, but some circumstances surrounding his stop at Double-A obscure the truth of that statement:
Don't get me wrong; his 2001 stop at Tulsa has its merits, considering the power he displayed there, but this does not look like the next logical step in production following his previous season's displays of hitting aptitude. His BABIP dropped to a low .268-league average Double-A BABIP from 1996 to 2004 was .318, and the Texas League average is normally a bit higher-which certainly hurt his numbers, and helps to explain the significant dip in production. Responsibility for this most likely rests with the preseason wrist surgery he underwent; Baseball Prospectus 2002 says that the surgery, "led to a slow start with Tulsa, causing him to press at the plate and cut his walk rate in half."
This setback dropped Mench from the #4 prospect in the organization down to #9 for the 2002 season in Baseball America's 2002 Prospect Handbook:
Mench has been compared to Pete Incaviglia with better outfield skills. He has become more and more of a dead-pull hitter with exceptional power. He crushed left-handers in the Texas League last year, hitting .352 with 10 homers in 128 at-bats against them…If he sticks with the pull-everything approach, he'll never hit for average. He hit just .233 against right-handers in 2001 and his patience at the plate slipped. His arm limits him to left field. Mench must keep his body under control. He's in danger of getting too stiff across the shoulders, a development that could tie up his swing.
If some of these problems sound familiar, it's because Mench still cannot hit right-handers, yet continues to mash southpaws-this is a platoon profile, after all. The consensus was that the wrist was the cause of his poorer play, but it needs noting that he beat the hell out of lefties just fine. Maybe his poor start did cause him to press, but his inability to go the other way with the ball certainly did not help his batting average as he moved up through the minors.
Mench would split time in 2002 between Triple-A Oklahoma and the majors, and the results were not all that impressive:
Team AB AVG/OBP /SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Oklahoma(3A) 98 .214/.342/.480 67% .266 8 14.5% 28.2% Texas(MLB) 366 .260/.327/.448 39% .188 22 7.5% 20.1%
His walk rates and Isolated Power were impressive during his short stint at Oklahoma, despite the low batting average that can be blamed on a .254 BABIP in a small sample. Of course, given Mench's tendencies to always pull the ball, the defense can take a few extra hits from him here and there, keeping him from consistently posting an average or above average BABIP, and it does not help that he almost never goes the other way for singles and doubles down the line.
Yet on the surface, 2002 looks like a solid year for a 24-year old rookie. Dig a bit deeper, and a few problems arise. The low batting average, of course, but it doesn't help that he only hit .239/.295/.413 on the road, and slugged just .413 against right-handed pitchers. If you want to break it down further-although the sample size is now just 121 at-bats-Mench slugged .364 versus right-handers on the road, which is more than a little bit south of what you're looking for out of your corner outfielders. Mench just clearly needed to improve if he were to stick on in any kind of permanent capacity.
Baseball Prospectus 2003 still took a liking to Mench:
It's fitting that a player who draws so many comparisons to Pete Incaviglia would become the first Ranger rookie since Inky to hit 15 homers. The left wrist that has bothered him off and on since he had surgery on it in February 2001 is now finally, according to Mench, back to 100%. He'll be part of the Rangers left field mix going into the spring. If he gets the ABs, he's a very strong candidate for a breakout year.
Instead, with his wrist now "back to 100%", Mench turned into a singles hitter:
Team AB AVG/OBP /SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Oklahoma(3A) 105 .267/.366/.457 43% .190 8 14.5% 11.5% Texas(MLB) 125 .320/.381/.464 35% .144 12 7.2% 12.2%
It's nice to see him cut down on the strikeouts, but he just could not seem to maintain the higher walk rates that he'd displayed in the minors once he reached Texas. Mench broke his wrist in July, which limited his playing time, but his .144 Isolated Power from the time he was healthy was somewhat discouraging. Yes, he hit .320, but on the strength of a .358 BABIP from a guy with a career rate of .284.
Mench often has some pretty high line-drive rates, which would normally mean he should have a high BABIP, except that he's also an extreme flyball hitter; extreme flyball rates have the opposite effect of high line-drive rates on BABIP, so Mench usually ends up back towards the mean or below it, depending on how extreme his flyball tendencies are in a given year. This happened to be a short stretch where Mench's liner rate exceeded his flyball one, and a .320 average was born. The opposite happened in Oklahoma in his other 100+ at-bats, and he hit .267.
PECOTA had the right idea for Mench going into 2004, forecasting a .267/.340/.465 line. The OBP is a bit high given the average, but that's because PECOTA expected him to deliver on the promises of better plate discipline he'd shown at Oklahoma. Instead, Mench finally came through on the power potential he had displayed early on in his minor league career:
The positives seem clear, as Mench slugged well over .500, which helped to compensate for his below average on-base rate. He became a piece of trivia when he set the record for home runs in a season by a Delaware native. He also managed to slug .486 against right-handers, which was a boost to his value… sort of. Mench only hit .259/.306/.486 against RHPs, and just .256/.299/.502 overall on the road. The slugging percentage is nice, but Mench just couldn't seem to get a lot of hits away from Arlington. Add in that all of Mench's damage versus the right-handers came from his playing time against them at home, and you find another season full of holes.
Still, Mench could hit lefties anywhere, a fact apparent from his .312/.353/.592 line against southpaws on the road from 2002-2004. This was about the only consistent positive coming from Mench, a trend that would continue to show itself in 2005 and 2006. Baseball Prospectus 2005 continued to expect a breakout year from Mench given that his age-27 season was coming up, but PECOTA expected him to hit .281/.350/.500:
Year AB AVG/OBP /SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 557 .264/.328/.469 41% .205 36 8.2% 12.2% 2006 446 .269/.313/.419 33% .150 26 5.7% 13.2%
Mench's production at home for the Rangers in 2005-2006 was nowhere near as impressive as it had been previously, and although he brought up his road performance a bit, it was not to compensate for the drop. He hit .274/.339/.488 in Arlington, and .269/.324/.442 on the road; neither of those lines is good enough for a corner outfielder who doesn't bring much else to the table. He did manage to hit .310/.394/.596 against lefties over that time frame, and at the end of the 2006 season was a .303/.366/.564 hitter against them for his career.
Without Arlington to hide his flaws as much, Mench was exposed as a player in need of a platoon role when he was dealt to Milwaukee. He hit just .230/.248/.317 following the trade-clearly Mench is better than that, but that's certainly no way to keep a job when there you're on a team with plenty of talented outfielders. Even though Mench initially was against platooning for the Brewers, it really is the best way to use him effectively, due to his massive splits and his defensive limitations.
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2002 4.0 42.4% 22.9% 34.7% 23.0% 12.3% .299 .349 +0.50 2003 3.8 37.6% 25.7% 36.7% 14.6% 4.9% .358 .377 +0.19 2004 3.9 45.4% 18.7% 35.9% 14.0% 15.1% .275 .307 +0.32 2005 3.8 44.7% 18.7% 36.6% 14.5% 11.4% .263 .307 +0.57 2006 3.5 39.3% 18.4% 42.3% 18.8% 8.4% .286 .304 +0.18
The difference in eBABIP and BABIP can be ignored somewhat, although that may be too strong of a word to use. As previously explained, Mench is an extreme flyball hitter, so his BABIP will drift back towards the mean or below it fairly often. Since he also has a few seasons where he hit more liners-these were the ones earlier in his career with smaller samples as well-the numbers can look a bit screwy.
The important things to take from this data are the facts that he hit many more grounders than was normal for him in 2006-which is either the start of a trend or an outlier of sorts that should correct itself in 2007-and that his popups per flyball seem to either mirror or exceed his home runs per flyball. Being an extreme flyball guy helped Mench look like a better hitter in Arlington, but on the road he would fly out early and often. It certainly did not help that instead of hitting more liners or hard grounders, he was simply popping out to the infield and shallow outfield a lot.
Although Mench's flyballs are fairly evenly distributed, he's a dead pull hitter on grounders and line drives:
It isn't that difficult to defend someone who is going to hit the ball to the same place more than half the time, and if the guy can't hit right-handers to begin with, well, even better. Besides that one short season, Mench has never had much of a batting average, and his BABIP is usually fairly low. Chances are pretty good that Mench is going to encounter more problems when as he ages. When his bat slows some, he'll need to start going the other way more often as he tries to compensate for the loss of speed, and if he isn't able to do that, those Pete Incaviglia comparisons are going to finish out the same way they started.
Between Francisco Cordero and the Menchkins platoon, Doug Melvin should be able to earn back some of the points he seemed to lose with the Carlos Lee deal. Mench has his uses, they're just somewhat limited. If he is able to slug .550 or better against lefties while Geoff Jenkins can continue to beat up on the righties, the Brewers have themselves some great production coming out of left field. If the Brewers continue to give Mench some of Corey Hart's at-bats, that's actually a problem. If there were no platoon, then I'd rather have Gabe Gross on the roster than Mench. At any rate, it's really for the best that Mench stay in this platoon with Jenkins.