As fans of the Cubs' minor league system may know, 6-foot-7 reliever Dakota Mekkes was not hard to miss on the field. Yet Mekkes did not land a scholarship at Michigan State University. But on a recruiting meeting with legendary basketball coach Tom Izzo, Mekkes was able take away something that stays with him to this day. “Izzo talked to Dakota about how, just because Dakota would be a walk-on at Michigan State, it wouldn't mean that he couldn't make an impact,” said Myrtle Beach Pelicans play-by-play announcer Scott Kornberg. “I think that's the perfect microcosm for his career. Mekkes has been underestimated a lot, and yet, everywhere he goes, he dominates.”
Selected in the tenth round of the 2106 draft, the 22 year old is currently on one of the most impressive runs of any player selected by the current Cubs front office. In 32 appearances between the South Bend Cubs and the Pelicans, Mekkes has seven saves to go along with a 5-0 record. He’s only allowed two earned runs (four runs overall) in 55.1 innings for a remarkable 0.33 ERA. Pair that with a 0.922 WHIP and 75 strikeouts, and you have a dominating season.
Mekkes credits his father as being one of the biggest influences on his career. “My dad was the one who got me started playing baseball as a kid and was my coach a lot of my years in little league,” said Mekkes. The big righty also cited Bryan Baar, who runs Western Michigan Elite. “I trained and played summer ball there all through high school. He got me into a program that strengthens your legs, shoulders and lower back called CSTs. That got me from throwing 83 to 90 in three months.”
His family was also a big influence on where his early baseball loyalties and professional role models. “I have always been a big Yankees fan. My Dad and Grandpa are life-long Yankees fans and I was kind of born into it,” stated Mekkes. “If I had to try and compare myself, I'd say I'm kind of similar to Michael Pineda because he's also a big guy and uses mostly a fastball and slider. We both also kind of struggle with the walks.”
Part of the reason for the success of Mekkes is an unusual delivery for a big man. His long stride and crouch makes it difficult for hitters to pick up the ball out of his hand. “I've kind of thrown this way as long as I could remember,” said Mekkes. “I know I don't really use my height to my advantage by dropping down, but I feel like I use my length to my full advantage by getting full extension and trying to release the ball as close to home as I can.”
Kornberg agrees. “He doesn't throw hard. But at the same time, he's so big and he has such a big stride that he's just really difficult to pick up. So at 90-92 MPH, Mekkes actually is perceived to be 94-96 MPH probably, minimum, to a hitter.”
Despite his successes, there is still an adjustment in going from Low-A South Bend to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. “I think the biggest difference I've noticed is that hitters don't miss mistake pitches” explained Mekkes. “In South Bend, I might have been able to get away with missing a spot or two. But in Myrtle Beach, missed spots are hits!”
It’s all part of the learning process Mekkes has absorbed in his first full year of professional baseball. “One thing that I learned early is that you have to be ready to go every day, whether I was going to pitch that day or not. I learned very quickly that you need to find a way to take something to improve upon every day. As the saying goes, if you're not getting better you're getting worse.”
When asked about any memories of his time in South Bend, Mekkes was not hesitant. “My favorite memory is probably the 19 inning game we had that had to be continued the next day. I was sitting in the bullpen for all 18 innings in the freezing cold until 1 in the morning. It was definitely a night I won't forget!”
Hopefully, the momentary cold will not be the only memory Mekkes has of one hot season.