Luis Mendoza was a broken pitcher when the Royals took him off the Rangers’ hands in a 2010 trade.
It wasn’t that Mendoza, who won the fifth spot in Royals’ rotation during spring training and will make his second start in Friday’s series opener against Toronto, lacked big-league stuff.
Mendoza, 29, lacked confidence.
He’d had some success in the minors, particularly during the 2007 season with the Rangers’ Class AAA affiliate. Mendoza went 15-4 with a 3.93 ERA in 26 appearances that season for the Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders.
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But Mendoza struggled to duplicate that success at the big-league level, going 4-8 with a 7.73 ERA during three brief stints from 2007-09 with the Rangers.
When he arrived in Kansas City, the Royals put him in the bullpen, but he promptly coughed up 10 runs in four innings and was demoted to Class AAA Omaha by mid-April.
“I wondered if I’d ever be back in the big leagues again,” Mendoza said. “I felt healthy, my velocity was good and I knew I had good pitches. It was a matter of figuring out what I was doing wrong. There’s a lot of questions in your mind when you’re struggling.”
Enter Doug Henry, an 11-year big-league veteran with five teams — including his last year in 2001 with the Royals.
Henry was in his first season as Omaha’s pitching coach when Mendoza arrived, and it’s Henry who finally got through to Mendoza — tweaking his delivery and cultivating trust in his sinker.
“When we first signed him, he had a few rough outings up here and apparently had some rough outings before we got him,” said Henry, who is in his first season as bullpen coach for the Royals after three seasons at Omaha. “I told him what I saw. He started to make adjustments and had a couple good outings, but he didn’t feel comfortable and went back to his old ways.
“He had a couple more bad outings, but then he finally came to me and said, ‘I’m ready.’ It was a mind-set on his part. Once he made that commitment, he became extremely coachable and made those adjustments. When he changed, he just took off.”
Given the gift of desperation, Mendoza came to believe that the only way to get his major-league career back on track was to start from scratch.
“The mental side changed a lot,” Mendoza said. “I had struggled in the minor leagues and in the big leagues. There’s a point where you decide to start from zero.”
So, Mendoza put his faith and career in Henry’s hands.
“I let him treat me like a low-A or rookie player,” Mendoza said.
Henry adjusted Mendoza’s mechanics, simplifying his delivery and helping him find the strike zone with greater consistency.
“He just over-rotated,” Henry said. “ Once he realized that’s all it was, he bought into it and realized his sinker was a lot better and his breaking ball was a lot sharper.”
Finally able to command that heavy two-seam sinker, Mendoza’s career took off.
“Once I started talking with Doug, every day I’d see changes,” Mendoza said. “I’d see positive things. From that, I had a good season in Omaha. We won the championship and I had the opportunity to return to the big leagues in September.”
He was the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year in 2011, going 12-5 with a 2.18 ERA in 1441/3 innings. Mendoza’s last three months that season, he posted ERAs of 1.05, 1.54 and 1.59.
“The trophy they gave me, it was like winning the Cy Young,” Mendoza said. “It showed how far I’d come from when I started.”
During the Pacific Coast League playoffs, he went 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two starts, winning MVP honors for the champion Storm Chasers.
Mendoza sparkled during a September call-up that season, going 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA over 142/3 innings for the Royals.
Making the Royals roster out of spring training the following year, Mendoza started in the bullpen as the long reliever, but wound up making 25 starts and settled in during the season’s final three and a half months.
Mendoza went 6-7 with a 3.83 ERA last season in 20 starts, including 13 quality starts, after June 12.
He then helped Obregon to the Caribbean Series championship during the winter, again winning postseason MVP honors, and pitched for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic before securing a spot in the Royals’ revamped rotation with a rock-solid spring.
Confidence is no longer an issue for Mendoza.
“I have a different comfort level and I’m happy to be here right now,” Mendoza said.
He gives Henry half of the credit for his career’s about-face.
“I appreciate that and, as a coach, you like to hear somebody give you credit,” Henry said. “But, for me, it was an easy fix. There wasn’t any major mechanical change we made. The kid did it, and it was fun to watch the light bulb go off in his head. When it went off, it was an explosion. He took and ran, and he’s still running. It’s fun for me to watch.”