Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Mason Melotakis and first baseman Dalton (DJ) Hicks are roommates this summer, sharing the same host family during their stay in Cedar Rapids. Both players played major roles with the Kernels as the team qualified for the Midwest League Playoffs by finishing second in the league’s Western Division during the first half of the season and both could be candidates for promotion at some point this summer.
Melotakis leads the Kernels pitching staff in wins with six and in innings pitched with 64 2/3 innings. Those six wins are good for the fourth spot among Midwest League pitchers. The lefty has been perhaps the most consistently reliable member of the Kernels’ rotation in recent weeks.
Hicks has been one of the biggest power hitting threats in the Midwest League. He leads the Midwest League with 63 RBI in 66 games played for the Kernels and is third in the League with 12 home runs (just one home run behind co-leaders Renato Nunez of Beloit and Rock Shoulders of Kane County). Hicks is one of eight Kernels named to the Midwest League’s Western Division All-Star Team.
Melotakis was drafted in the second round of the 2012 First-year Player Draft by the Twins out of Northwestern State University. Hicks was the Twins’ 17th round draft choice the same year out of the University of Central Florida.
On the final Saturday before the end of the first half of their Midwest League season, Hicks and Melotakis both sat down for interviews and reflected on their seasons, so far. (The interviews were conducted separately, but since similar questions were asked of each player, we’ve combined their responses here.)
Jim Crikket: DJ, How do you feel the first couple of months in Cedar Rapids have gone for you personally?
DJ Hicks: I feel good. You know, baseball is a tough game. You’re obviously going to have some ups and downs. The thing is, you’ve got to be the same person day in and day out and I think that’s the key to success is not to get too high or too low, just stay the same.
JC: Mason, you’re one of the pitchers the Twins organization is looking at converting to a starting pitching role after spending most of your time prior to this season working out of the bullpen. How do you think things have gone with that so far?
Mason Melotakis: I think it’s going well. I mean every day is a new day and every outing is a new outing. Different stuff is working for me on that day. It’s a lot of learning how to pitch and how to adjust as the game goes on versus as a reliever, you’d better have your good stuff right then and there. As a starter, you can kind of turn it on later on.
Early in the year, I struggled in the first inning or early in the game, then it seemed like I settled in. Now I’m adjusting to starting off strong and continuing strong.
JC: DJ, you profile as a first baseman/designated hitter. That’s a similar profile to a couple other guys in the organization ahead of you, such as Kennys Vargas, for example. Do you pay attention to what other guys at your position are doing?
Hicks: No idea, because that’s something I can’t control. I can’t control what they do. I wish them the best, especially a guy like Vargas. He’s an awesome guy. I got to work with him in spring training, great guy. But that’s out of my hands. I can only control how I play.
JC: Mason, the ‘book’ on you coming in to the year was ‘hard throwing lefty, nice slider, needs work on the change up. Needs to develop his secondary pitches.’ Is that what you’ve been working on the past couple months?
JC: How do you feel that’s gone?
Melotakis: I don’t think I’m ever going to stop working on that, honestly, because you can always get better and better. But we are completely doing it all over again. I’m throwing a new change up grip and a new slider grip. We’re going back to square one. It’s all about throwing strikes and keeping them (hitters) off balance.
JC: Are you doing that because what you were doing before wasn’t working or is it just a new idea, trying a couple of different things?
Melotakis: It’s more of a better feel. When I was throwing my change up in a game, it seemed like I was not having a good feel for it. Same with the curve ball, I couldn’t really throw it for a strike. So, if you can’t throw whatever for a strike, then they’re not going to swing at it. So you’ve got to keep them off balance and be able to throw it for a strike.
I really wasn’t throwing (the change up) for strikes or even close sometimes. As for my slider, this one I have a good feel for, so I’m going to throw it for a strike. You know, who knows? It could be two lethal weapons now versus just throwing them out there.
JC: DJ, I understand a couple of years ago, you had some health issues you had to fight through. A collapsed lung, I believe. What happened there?
Hicks: I was in the Valley League the summer after my freshman year of college. I dove at first base. I think I hit the grass. I felt a little weird. The next at-bat I hit a double and was really out of breath, really fighting it.
The next morning, I couldn’t breathe on my right side, waking up. I just couldn’t breathe. So we thought I cracked a rib or something. So I took maybe a week or two weeks off in the league. Then the playoffs started so I finished maybe a couple of games in playoffs.
A month later, when I got to UCF, I felt a sharper pain again, so we saw a rib doctor, a specialist, and he said everything was fine. Then we saw just a regular doctor, they took an x-ray and they rushed me to the hospital.
JC: How much baseball time did you miss with that?
Hicks: A lot. I was in the hospital for like 16 days. I had to have a couple of different operations because the first one didn’t work. They kind of told me I was done (with baseball) from the beginning. Then they kind of said maybe like eight months to a year and a half, pushing two years.
I couldn’t do anything for the first three months, I couldn’t even hold a backpack. Nothing. But at five months, I thought I was good enough to play. I want to say I played a weekend series and by Sunday it was hard to breathe. It was just too much, so we kind of laid off. I took the rest of the year off. That was my red-shirt sophomore year.
I played a little bit in that summer, but it was still bothering me. Then when I came back, it was just trying to run again and get in shape again. That was definitely the hardest part. Trying to condition with the team and just the warm-ups and I was done.
JC: Mason, the perception is that, in many cases, for someone that can throw a mid-90s fastball, the path to the Big Leagues might be a little quicker for a relief pitcher than a starter, while a starting pitcher’s career could be more lucrative. Did any of that go through your mind when the Twins told you they wanted to make a starting pitcher out of you?
Melotakis: Absolutely. It’s a good career path to be a starter versus a reliever. Right now, we’re developing me in to a good pitcher, as in pitching and not just throwing. Having three pitches I can throw for strikes versus just having the two and just blowing by fastballs.
My fastball’s there, it’s ready, but it’s the other stuff I need to work on. Making me a starter will give me more innings and I’ll also have a chance to work with adversity, adjustments, learning to throw strikes.
It’s just all about development this year. Who knows what my path is? But right now I’m enjoying where I’m at.
JC: DJ, You’re on Twitter like a lot of the guys are. Are you active on Social Media sort of things? Do you go out and read what people write about you, about the team?
Hicks: Not at all, to be honest with you. I’m on Twitter. I like Twitter. I like to keep tabs on all my friends, former teammates, guys that aren’t playing any more. I use it for that.
Of course, you’re going to run in to stories and see your name and stuff like that, but I really do try to stay away from that stuff ‘cuz that stuff just gets in your head.
JC: Tell me a little about your interests and hobbies off the field. What do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?
Hicks: I like to hang out with the family. I’m a big family guy. I’m definitely missing my nephews, my niece. My niece actually just beat cancer at nine months old so that was definitely a struggle. Obviously, we’ve been cheering ever since we heard the news. She’s a tough little girl.
But other than that, I like to play basketball. I’m a big basketball guy.
JC: Do they let you play basketball?
Hicks: No, not any more. Now I stick to video game basketball (laughing). Any kind of little activities, any kind of games. I like doing stuff. I hate sleeping in. Mason gets mad at me all the time, ‘cuz I’m always waking him up.
JC: Mason, what do you like to do when you’re not on the pitcher’s mound?
Melotakis: Honestly, I don’t really know, man. Whenever we have off days, we don’t do anything. We don’t know what to do with our lives (laughing). I work out, try to get better.
I don’t really do video games, I’ve never golfed. I’m going to golf for the first time on Monday over the All-Star break. We might see how that goes. I’m not a big video game guy. I watch movies, I guess. I’m a big movie guy.
JC: What’s your favorite movie?
Melotakis: My favorite movie’s got to be the Batmans. All the Batmans, even old Batmans. Those are the best, I grew up on that.
JC: Down the road, what do you think you’ll remember about playing in Cedar Rapids? Have there been particular highlights during your time here so far that you think will stand out?
Melotakis: Honestly, just the guys. We’re all a pretty tight-knit team. Being in first place the majority of the year. I’m going to really remember that, just us winning more than anything. Just enjoying our time here. But when you’re winning, everything seems to be a lot better.
Hicks: One, we have a great team. Obviously, when you win, that makes everything way better. When you’ve got guys like (Byron) Buxton bringing in crowds, just for him, that’s something special. You don’t see the kind of player he is every day. Guys like JD (Williams) , it’s been fun playing with him. He’s a different character.
It’s a great town, great host family. I can’t complain about anything in Cedar Rapids at all.