Surprise, Arizona —— To be a successful left-handed reliever, you must get lefties out.
The Minnesota Twins’ Mason Melotakis knows that, and he understands his long-term role in baseball will more or less be something of a left-handed specialist, the kind of guy who comes in to face a team’s best lefty slugger in the tightest situation late in the game. And as Baseball Census found out during a conversation at the Arizona Fall League, he’d be far from ungrateful for that role—it’s just that, well, he has confidence in his stuff well beyond the situational matchups.
“I feel comfortable with lefties and righties,” Melotakis said at the time, pitching for the Surprise Saguaros. “Honestly, I just want the baddest guy, whoever it is, lefty or righty. I feel that my curve ball plays really well against both lefties and righties, and so does my fastball.”
Melotakis is right about that; a hammer curve and a mid-90s fastball aren’t too shabby for anyone, lefty or righty, and the big, strong Texan’s stuff actually worked pretty well against opposite-handed hitters in 2016. In his first partial season back from Tommy John Surgery—Melotakis pitched in 36 games last summer—the lefty whiffed 31 righties in just 22 innings pitched against them, no doubt a testament to his ability to make everybody miss with that big, hard curveball.
“I let the curve do its work, especially with righties, and I like to get as much plate as possible,” Melotakis explained. “I like to start it in the middle and just let it work. I don’t want to be too fine with it and have it do too much, and then it ends up a ball. I just let it start in the middle of the plate, and let it do its thing after that.”
That curveball of his has the makings of being a pretty special pitch, and combined with above-average fastball velocity, it might be enough to get Mason Melotakis to the big leagues. It’s been a long road to hoe with it, though, and the Northwestern (La.) State product has more than earned every swing-and-miss he’s getting with the curve now after years of trying to figure out how to throw it, when to throw it, and where to throw it.
“I went backwards from how most guys do it,” Melotakis said, smiling. “I threw [the curve] as hard as I could when I was learning it, I never really flipped it in there. It was more of a strikeout pitch right off the bat. My college coach J.P. Davis taught it to me, and he just kind of said take it and throw it as hard as you can.”
“But once I had to learn how to throw it for a strike, that really changed my vision, and it forced me to look higher up in the zone so I could break it and end it up at the knees,” Melotakis continued. “But it took me a few years. When I was in Low-A at Cedar Rapids, I was a starter, and I had to learn how to develop that pitch to throw it as a strike because they wouldn’t swing at it in the dirt. So now, if I can go strike one and outpitch with it, well, now it’s almost two different pitches. But it took years and years of throwing and working with it.”
Now, at least to start 2017, Melotakis will take that curve—and his hard fastball—to Double-A Chattanooga. If early returns are any indication, things are starting off right: in two appearances entering Tuesday, Melotakis is 1-0 with 2.2 scoreless innings pitched (no walks, three strikeouts) under his belt. Small sample size, of course, but an encouraging development for a guy who found this level quite the proving ground coming off elbow surgery a year ago.
“I had to learn how to read swings, and that’s something I took from some of the older guys,” Melotakis reminisced about his first foray into the Southern League. “And you’re reading swings, but you’re also reading each hitter. They know what you’re going to do, because they have a scouting report on you. They know if your out pitch is a curve ball. And when they get behind, because they know your out pitch is a curve ball, they know they can let it go.”
“That makes you learn, well, maybe I can go high and in to mix it up with them, or maybe if I usually throw a lot of fastballs early, maybe I need to mix it up and throw my curveball first,” he continued. “And each year you have to do that. You have to develop a little something new, and keep them on their toes, just so you can throw their timing off a little bit like that.”
So far, so good in the Southern League for Mason Melotakis in that regard; soon, perhaps, the Minnesota Twins await to see if he can do the same thing at the ultimate level.
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