Thank goodness for Oscar Mercado. As the 2019 season approached, it became clear that the extent of the Cleveland Indians’ fortification of their outfield would be fliers on a couple of potentially washed-up veterans and a potential Quad-A bust. The national media and Indians fandom alike responded to the inactivity with a universal lambasting. The barrage of negativity was about as justified as any pre-season speculation can be: Only the Tigers, Giants, Orioles, Royals, and Marlins, teams with some of the lowest expectations in baseball, were projected by FanGraphs to have less productive outfields than Cleveland (to the curious souls among you, FanGraphs depth charts projections average ZiPS and Steamer, two of the three most popular public-facing projection systems). Any ideation of thriving required some imaginative thinking. Carlos Gonzalez’s all-star days were long behind him, and even then, there were questions about his ability to hit away from Coors Field. Coming into the 2019 season, CarGo had accrued 1.8 fWAR in the previous two seasons combined. Leonys Martin’s outlook coming into the season was slightly rosier from a baseball perspective, which is saying something considering the real-life misfortunes he had recently overcome. Still, as inspiring as his off-the-field recovery was, there was no way to predict how he would recover on the field. Unfortunately for the Indians, neither Martin nor Gonzalez was able to overcome their varying levels of adversity. On May 13th, only four outfields had less productive starts to the season; the Indians outfield was third to last in isolated power and second from the bottom in strikeout percentage. Martin and Gonzalez had been worth a combined -.1 WAR, “leading” the mediocrity that plagued the Indians’ entire offense. Zack Meisel summed it up nicely:
He won’t fix all of this, but there’s no valid reason for why Oscar Mercado is still playing at Triple-A.
— Zack Meisel (@ZackMeisel) May 8, 2019
Mercadomania was in full force, and not everyone shared Meisel’s appropriately tempered message. The 24-year-old converted shortstop had hit .294/.396/.496, good for a .202 ISO, with an 11.4% walk rate against a 22.9% strikeout rate in 140 Triple-A plate appearances. Cleveland echoed with tales of his blazing speed and outfield range. As aging veterans, along with Greg Allen and Jake Bauers, made out after out in Cleveland, Indians fans dreamt of Mercado’s youthful breath of fresh air. At the time, I was skeptical: Mercado had never hit like this before and rarely is it wise to expect the sustainability of a month of offensive production from a career-long below-average hitter. It just turned out that Mercado might be an exception to that rule.
He was called up on May 14th, made an immediate impact, and sustained a relatively high level of play for the rest of the season. All in all, it’s difficult to classify Mercado’s debut as anything less than a success, even though he was notably less productive in the bigs. His .269/.318/.443 was good for a .174 ISO and 95 wRC+, each slightly below the MLB average, but higher than one might have expected just using his pre-2019 numbers. However, his 5.8% BB-rate marked a significant decline even from his career norms. Still, despite spending the first 25% of the season in the minors, the Colombian native finished his rookie season with 1.7 WAR, the second-highest total among Cleveland outfielders, and even that may underrate him. The defensive metrics much preferred his play in center field than in the corners, which is unintuitive but makes sense based on his inexperience at reading fly balls off the bat and what we know about how balls travel to the outfield corners. Indians fans must be pleased with Year One of the Mercado Experience, but he’s certainly going to have to make some adjustments to continue to grow as a player.
Mercado’s power was slightly sapped in the transition from the minors to the majors, and there’s a real concern the power he did manage in Cleveland could be fleeting. The young Indians outfielder’s previous professional career-high in isolated power was .140, so his .174 MLB mark represents a huge step forward. Uncoincidentally, he was far from the only one to take a leap. Indeed, the MLB and Triple-A as a whole each saw unprecedented power numbers, and though newfound coaching techniques may be partially responsible, the main reason for the spike is, of course, the ball, and its newfound juiciness. And, while the change certainly benefited all hitters, logic would dictate it would disproportionately help the lower-middle class of power hitters, those who possess mostly warning track power, and that’s exactly what’s borne out in the statistics. (The second link is to an episode of Ben Lindbergh and Co.’s excellent podcast; the relevant information begins at 29:58.)
And, the evidence against Mercado is more than just circumstantial. Before Statcast, Greg Rybarczyk and ESPN used to run a home run tracker website, and one of the things it used to track was the number of “wall-scrapers” each player hit. The idea was that wall-scrapers were the least likely fly balls to be future homers in different situations. Statcast data allows us to generalize this concept; one would expect that the lower the average exit velocity and distance of a player’s home run total, the more tenuous his ability to hit homers in the future. Mercado fails this test of home run sustainability: His average home run was struck at just 98.5 MPH off the bat, second-slowest in baseball, and carried 385 ft., the thirteenth-shortest projected distance, each among those who hit at least ten homers. Prefer to include all extra-base hits? Mercado’s 97.1 MPH puts him in just the 16th percentile when you include players who hit at least 25 combined doubles, triples, and homers. It should concern those Indians fans who are optimistic about Mercado’s 2019 leap that the playoff baseball was mysteriously re-deadened; should that carry over into the 2020 regular season, a real possibility, Mercado could see a drastic decline in power. And, if he doesn’t maintain his power or improve upon his 5.8% walk-rate, Mercado will be a huge black hole in the Indians lineup in 2020. However, Mercado is also a simple adjustment away from taking a huge bound forward in offensive production, one that would improve his walk rate and least mitigate the losses to his power if the baseball carries the same properties next season as it did in the playoffs.
In Triple-A, Mercado saw an average of 3.94 pitches per PA, which is almost exactly the MLB average. Once he reached the majors, however, that number plummeted to just 3.61, putting him in just the ninth percentile amongst players with 250+ PAs. Unsurprisingly, pitches per plate appearances and walk rate are highly related (the yellow dot is Mercado):
Of course, taking pitches at random isn’t a strategy for success, so we must dig deeper in order to uncover why Mercado’s average number of pitches/PA is so low. The most obvious candidate is that he’s swinging at bad pitches; luckily, FanGraphs tracks that. The average MLB hitter swung at 30.7% of pitches out of the zone, per Pitch Info. However, Mercado was actually better than average in that category, offering at just 29.9% of would-be balls. His pitches/PA and walk-rate would each jump, of course, should he improve the skill further, but it’s hard to expect him to get better at something he’s already quite good at. In reality, what limits Mercado’s average length of PA is his propensity to swing at lots of strikes and put most of them in play. Again per Pitch Info, his 75.2% swing rate at pitches in the strike zone ranks 17th out of the 451 batters with 100+ plate appearances. And, when he swings at strikes, he makes contact 89.2% of the time, which is 88th in baseball. The only player with a greater zone swing rate and zone contact rate was Willians Astudillo himself, who’s legendary for his absurdly aggressive approach. In other words, Mercado swung at three-fourths of pitches in the zone and made contact with nine-tenths of those swings; it’s no wonder that he rarely walked. He was essentially stepping up to the plate with a two-strike approach. So how should he adjust? The answer starts with a table.
|Oscar Mercado||BA||BA percentile||SLG||SLG percentile||wOBA||wOBA percentile||hard hit%|
hard hit% percentile
Mercado is inarguably at his most productive when he’s pulling the ball. He reaches base more, he hits for more power, and he hits the ball hard more often when he’s stroking it to left. Now, the astute reader may question whether that’s true for the majority of big leaguers, which is why I also included percentiles. Mercado is near or above the median in all four stats listed when he’s trying to pull, but to other fields, he’s in the bottom fifth of MLB.
Consider the movement in pitching toward increased breaking ball percentages among pitchers with quality secondary offerings. The logic behind said movement is why not throw one’s best pitch more often. The same could be said about pull-hitters, although it’s not nearly as simple of course. Pitchers have complete control over their game, what pitches they throw and where they aim, while hitters are resigned to merely reacting to the pitch. Thus, pull-hitters cannot just try to pull everything; they have to wait for the right pitch. This is where Mercado must adjust.
Mercado is among the most aggressive swingers in the strike zone, but not all strikes are equally worthing of swinging at, especially by a hitter who is so much more productive when pulling the ball than when hitting to other fields. This heatmap describes the average pitch location that Mercado pulled in 2019:
And here is the heatmap for pitch locations that Mercado pulled at over 95 MPH:
Compare that to the average pitch Mercado hit straightaway to the opposite field:
Nothing here is surprising; Mercado likes to pull pitches on the inner two-thirds of the plate while trying to poke pitches on the outer third to right field, which is absolutely what he should be doing which each pitch location. The problem is that Mercado is nearly as aggressive at swinging at pitches on the outer third as he is the more punishable pitches in his wheelhouse. In fact, Mercado swung at 71.7% of pitches on the outer third of the zone last year—only 70 MLB players swung that aggressively in the entire strike zone. That’s unfair, you may be thinking; he has to swing at those pitches with two strikes. You’d be right to think that. However, when ahead or even in the count, he still swung at 66.2% of outside strikes. And, we’ve already established that when Mercado swings at strikes, it’s highly likely that he makes contact, but not necessarily good contact.
It seems as if Mercado’s approach at the plate was to avoid falling behind at all costs, even if it meant swinging at unfavorable strikes in hitters’ counts. That seems foolish, as he is clearly excellent at discerning balls from strikes and making contact anywhere in the zone. By swinging aggressively at pitches he can’t punish despite favorable counts, Mercado handicaps himself, shortening his at-bats and making lots of weak contact. Instead, he must get better at letting these pitches go by. The more pitches he sees, the more likely he would be to take a walk or see a pitch he can truly mash.
In many ways, Mercado salvaged Cleveland’s outfield situation in 2019. Without him, the Indians likely wouldn’t have been able to acquire Franmil Reyes and a bevy of young pitchers in the Bauer trade, instead of having to focus on filling an extra outfield position in the short term. And, even if 2019 is the greatest offensive season of his career, a mild setback wouldn’t completely tank his value, because he provides so much with his legs and his glove. Yet, Mercado has become a fan favorite, with many hoping that he can become a cog in the Indians’ core roster for years to come. For that rosy future to come into fruition, Cleveland fans will have to be patient as Mercado learns to do the same.