Let’s start with a humblebrag, as most people want to but don’t have the courage to. Two nights ago I tweeted out a thought that has been rattling around in my brain for about 20 or so games and it got traction in #IndiansTwitter. Yes, 48 likes on a tweet is hardly something to brag about, but that number is 10% of my followers soooo yeah I’m running with it. Here’s the tweet:
Oscar Mercado is the right handed Michael Brantley only faster and I can’t shake that from my brain.
— Joe Gerberry (@THEGerbsWFNY) June 19, 2019
Now you see, the thought of Mercado as Brantley Lite came about while Armchair Manager Gerbs was attempting to fix Jose Ramirez. As an avid collector of Jose Ramirez fantasy stock the last few years, I’ve spent the majority of 2019 attempting to figure out how to replicate the production of the diminutive1 MVP candidate. I tried making the argument that Ramirez hits better in the three-hole because, despite only getting 83 plate appearances there in 2019, it’s the spot in the lineup where he flourished last year behind Francisco Lindor and erstwhile Michael Brantley. But at the beginning of the year, it was difficult to find two hitters better suited to bat in front of him, which got Ramirez some run hitting second. *Narrator voice* It did not go well.2
Upon Lindor’s return to health and the leadoff spot, Ramirez slotted back to the three spot and flourished by 2019 standards. A .386 OBP, 110 wRC+ and a 13-to-12 walk to strikeout ratio coincided with hitting third, which are not 2018 numbers but are lightyears better than what he was putting up elsewhere. Soon came the drop to fifth, inexplicable then and now, as the drop in order, importance, pressure…all of it has yet to turn Ramirez around. So a move back to third is probably the best bet on getting more production from Ramirez, but something was still missing from 2018. Looking at the surroundings, it became clear: Jason Kipnis and Leonys Martin were not cutting it hitting behind Lindor and in front of Ramirez, especially when compared to Brantley’s numbers in 2018.
Manager Terry Francona must have had the same genius thought as me since Mercado was plugged into the No. 2 slot 20 games ago. In those 20 games, the team has seen a turnaround in the record book, going 13-7. Obviously, Mercado hitting second is not the only reason the team has done better of late. Roberto Perez has channeled the ghost of Johnny Bench3 and become the power hitter very few thought he could be. Jake Bauers hit for the cycle one day and has been better since the talking to from Francona about maybe losing his job to prospect Bobby Bradley. Jason Kipnis has been…productive? as a cleanup hitter at times.4 The patchwork rotation of Trevor Bauer, Shane Bieber and the flotsam of Zach Plesac, Adam Plutko along with the return of Mike Clevinger has been better of late and the bullpen is, of course, doing its thing. But Mercado has been almost everything as advertised hitting second, making the loss of Brantley a little more palatable, though the two have different approaches at the plate despite being similar in production.
I want to start identifying the differences, so as to get the haters out of the way first. Mercado is not as patient as Brantley. Mercado has only a 4.9% walk rate on the season and coupled with an 18.7% K rate, you see that Mercado has much more three true outcomes in his approach than Brantley, who has a career walk rate at 7.8% and K rate just above 10%. This difference can be seen in the swinging strike of the two: Brantley’s career SwStr% is 3.6%, Mercado has a 12.2% on the season to this point. Mercado makes good contact as well, his 77.2% contact rate would be almost equal to stars like Ronald Acuna Jr, Andrew Benintendi, and Rhys Hoskins if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, but against Brantley and his near Herculean effort of 92.6? It pales in comparison. In today’s game, Mercado’s approach can be successful, as we have seen, but it can and should improve with more time against major league arms, especially given his spot in the lineup and the Feast of Quad-A arms in the AL Central.
Where Mercado and Brantley are more similar are in the aesthetics. A smooth hitting left fielder hitting second, collecting hits with apparent ease, making opposing pitchers work harder against those hitting behind him like Carlos Santana. His speed has helped him tremendously, swiping six bases on the year, two in one inning two nights ago, much like Brantley *used* to do before years and injuries took a toll on his speed. Mercado’s exit velocity and launch angle are all in line with what Brantley has put forth, maybe a tick lower, but with only 123 plate appearances, those numbers fluctuate constantly.
(( Now comes the time where I ask a hypothetical question to myself and answer them for you. Meta, I know. )) Is Mercado as good as Brantley? No, Brantley is a former MVP finalist and there is simply too much swing and miss in Mercado’s game as it currently is built to get up to his 2014 heights. But if we take Mercado for what he is: an acceptable facsimile of a veteran hitter with newer toys and a slightly different approach, we will be just fine. And I have a new favorite player!
A little NBA stuff
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up some NBA stuff since tonight is draft night, the Cavs Super Bowl for 2019. Cleveland seems to be at the epicenter of a lot of movement around this draft. Pick No. 5 can be used in a variety of ways: it seems to be available for moving up to get RJ Barrett, moving back to make a Cam Reddish pick more palatable, right in line with getting Jarrett Culver or maybe Darius Garland…who knows. I enjoy when the Cavs are involved in the center of things, but my worry is this: the pieces Cleveland has to offer only really help contending teams. Jordan Clarkson’s expiring contract will be on the move in February, as will Tristan Thompson’s, Brandon Knight’s, and Matthew Dellavedova’s. The JR Smith contract is only useful to teams attempting to clear salary for free agency, which makes a Lakers trade an almost no-brainer except their cupboards are clean after the Anthony Davis trade. What this means is don’t expect much movement up the board before pick No. 5, but all the world is open after with No. 26.