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Cristian Mena’s Future is in the Rotation

Taking a look at our new pitcher

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Torey Lovullo
Torey Lovullo
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Let’s look at a few reasons that I am optimistic that Cristian Mena will be in the Diamondbacks rotation.

Pitching Consistency.

In the rotation, the top three Diamondbacks pitchers have pitching consistency as a core characteristic. Although Cristian Mena is young and has not yet reached his peak pitching effectiveness, let’s compare his pitching consistency to those pitchers.

Quality Starts. In 2023, Mena increased to 133.2 innings pitched. Although innings were less than the other three pitchers, his 11 quality starts was nearly as high as Rodriguez. In 2023, his 11 quality starts was encouraging.

Streaks of Games with 4 or less Earned Runs. His streaks of 15 and 16 games are impressive. He compared well on this measure of consistency.

Seasons with 150 Innings Pitched. Each season, he increased his innings pitched. Next season he will likely reach and sustain 150 innings.

Game Scores. His consistency in game scores is interesting.

His percentage of poor game scores was comparable to Gallen in AA, but fell to comparable to Rodriguez in his first 4 games in AAA. However, he is no doubt still making adjustments to the higher level of play.

His percentage of excellent game scores fell short of the others. My view is that as his pitching effectiveness increases (due to excellent coaching), many of his average games scores will become excellent game scores. My view is that his excellent games scores will increase from 22.7% to 40%.

The following table shows the 5 measures of consistency for these four pitchers.

Data from Baseball Reference and MiLB.com.

Cristian Mena compares well to Eduardo Rodriguez.

The Diamondbacks recently added Eduardo Rodriguez to their rotation. After that acquisition, they traded for Cristian Mena. The following table compares Cristian Mena with Eduardo Rodriquez.

Data from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

With a caveat is that the table compares Majors pitching with minors pitching, there are several metrics which are encouraging, especially because Mena just turned 21 years old. First, Mena’s 3.73 FIP is about the same as Rodriguez. Second, it appears that in AAA Mena made an adjustment that lowered his HR9. Third, batters whiff a lot against Mena.

With the excellent Diamondbacks’ pitching coaches, I am confident that Mena will become a mid-rotation starter for the Diamondbacks.

Curveball is his best pitch.

Several baseball writers have written about his curveball. A few comments follow:

  • A FanGraphs’ prospects’ report rated it 55/60. “Mena’s curveball is plus, a power low-80s hook that is tough for hitters to identify because it doesn’t have big arc as it leaves his hand.” — Eric Longenhagen, December 2022
  • “He has the ability to manipulate it, so the average movement of it doesn’t jump off the page. It’s late-breaking, which there’s no metric for. It spins well and it moves in the hitting zone. He throws one at minus-6 (inches of inverted vertical break) and then he’ll throw one at minus-13, and one’s a putaway and one is for a strike.” — John Ely, his pitching coach at Kannapolis.
  • “Mena has long boasted an impeccable ability to spin his curveball, to the point that he’s been tasked with building his arsenal around that pitch.” — Tess Taruskin
  • “Mena’s calling card is no doubt his ability to spin the curveball.” — Jeffern51
  • “Mena has a very low effort delivery and quick arm action, which could help his command develop further.” — Noah Wright

His swinging strike rate is amazing.

In 2023, his swinging strike rate ranked as third highest in the minors. Very impressive!

Interestingly, his K% ranked as only 76th highest in the minors per a table in this FanGraphs article.

My understanding of the article’s explanation is that while his swinging strike rate is very high, when his pitches cross the plate in the strike zone the swinging strike rate ranks comparatively lower. I did not find data to confirm that idea. Further, the article states that batters in the Majors will rarely swing at a pitch that does not look like it will be a strike at some point in the delivery.

There is good reason to think that the articles explanation, despite including common sense, is off-target. A better explanation follows:

“If we filter the results down to include only pitchers in AA ball where Mena pitched the majority of his innings in 2023, his K% of 27.9 ranks 6th. In AAA that would’ve ranked him 2nd. I think the disparity that the author found was more so because she included all other levels of the minors which allowed for many players in the lower levels with high K% numbers to be included.” — Jeffern51

His mental game is great.

He is in control of his emotions. Control of emotions is an important component of not letting distractions impact his pitching process. Two reasons to think he has this strength follow:

He thrives on challenge. In 2021 he pitched in the rookie league. In 2022 & 2023 (very quickly) he progressed to the AAA level. That shows that he successfully met bigger challenges at each level. Two points follow:

  • He is successfully meeting the challenge of competing with more experienced players. “He is the 17th youngest pitcher to log at least 15 starts at Double-A and the 14th youngest arm to start at least three games at Triple-A over the last decade.” — Noah Wright
  • “There’s never been a time where I felt like Cristian was intimidated by a situation, or intimidated by an opponent.” — Chris Getz, assistant general manager

Summary.

I’m optimistic that Cristian Mena will join the Diamondbacks rotation (timeframe unknown). The four reasons for my optimism:

  • In the minors, his measures of consistency are nearly as good as the top three pitchers in the Diamondbacks rotation.
  • In the minors, his pitching (FIP, HR9, and whiffs-per-pitch) compares well to Eduardo Rodriguez.
  • His swinging strike rate (whiffs) is amazing.
  • His mental game is great because he controls his emotions and because he thrives on challenge.