The Rare Emergence of Jordy Mercer: Is He Here to Stay?
League-wide, shortstops have notoriously been the least productive hitters of any position player on the diamond. This isn’t a new phenomenon though. They’ve been consistently under-producing offensively since umpires have been calling balls and strikes. Shortstop is undeniably one of the toughest positions to play at the Major League level. It requires an absurd amount of athleticism, great instincts and a cannon for an arm. Parlay these demands with the psychological warfare of stepping to the plate against the best arms in the world, and it’s no wonder there’s a shortage of sluggers at the position.
Let’s see just how bad the positional discrepancy has been this season.
It just goes to show that having a shortstop who can put up outfield or corner infield numbers is advantageously indispensable. But like birdies on my summer’s worth of scorecards, they’re few and far between. Of course, we occasionally find a diamond in the rough in a Cal Ripken, an A-Rod, Jeter, Garciaparra, or even a present day Troy Tulowitzki. But again, great offensive shortstops don’t grow on trees.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been living proof of shortstop scarcity for upwards of two decades now. In 15 seasons from 1998 to 2012, on average, the Pirates shortstop position ranked 24th in the Majors in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). Eight of those seasons, they finished in the bottom five of the league, and four times in the bottom three. They only had one top 10 finish (sixth in 2004) and two top 20 finishes (sixth in 2004; 13th in 2007).
Insert Jordy Mercer, the power of “Zoltan,” and the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the midst of the Pirates playoff push last summer, Jordy received the mid-season blessing from Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle to supplant defensive specialist Clint Barmes at short. The totality of Mercer’s contribution, compared to what Barmes brought to the table, was quite evident as Mercer was worth almost a full win more than Barmes, despite his forgettable defense.
Mercer clubbed a solid .285/.336/.435 line in 365 plate appearances last season as he helped push the Pirates into the postseason for the first time in 21 years. His .772 OPS ranked him third in his own clubhouse, and eighth among shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances. His .285 average ranked second for the Bucs, and again, eighth for qualified shortstops. Not bad, for the kid’s first stroll around the block – Mercer only recorded 68 plate appearances during his rookie season in 2012.
Over the 21-season playoff hiatus, only three times did a Pirates’ shortstop provide comparable offensive production to that of Mercer’s 2013 line.
|Player||Year||wOBA||wRC+||Total Offensive Value |
(above average) via FanGraphs
It’s certainly nothing to hang your hat on, but there is something to be said for Mercer all but matching the Pirates 21-year bests during his first real look in the bigs.
For an encore, Mercer has silently solidified himself as the Pirates starting shortstop this season. In a contract year, his unexpected offensive output may force the Pirates to pony up some extra pennies this off-season, if they want him back in 2015. Some of that will depend on what the team plans to do with top prospect, Alen Hanson. Talks have recently surfaced around the organization about potentially shifting Hanson from shortstop to second base. However it unfolds, the 21-year-old is still a season or two removed from making the jump to the Majors, and isn’t an immediate threat to Mercer’s job security.
The offensive uptick this season has been great, no doubt about it, but more on that in a minute. The most impressive part of Mercer's game has been the improvement in the field. He’s currently ranked second in the league at 8.4 in SABR Defensive Index, which measures a players defensive runs saved relative to the league average at the position. He’s seventh at short in ratio of good plays to misplays at 1.86 and his fielding percentage has jumped 21 points this season with 300 more innings played. Mercer’s Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) leapt from -4.7 last season to -0.2 this season. All in all, he’s been worth six more runs above average in the field than he was a year ago.
In addition to his middle infield emergence, Mercer has unexpectedly put himself on the fantasy baseball radar – better late than never. And his value only intensifies with the recent string of injuries to hit the shortstop position. Tulo, Hanley, Hardy, Lowrie and Cabrera are the latest victims, all of whom were drafted as top 14 shortstops this spring, according to Fantasy Pros.
This far into the season, we can’t solely depend on a yearly stat line for adequate projection. We need a sufficient sample that portrays recent trends, allowing us to more accurately predict future performance. Monthly splits seem like a good place to start.
You can see it hasn’t been all bells and whistles this season for Jordy. In response to the .190 average he posted through May 30th, Mercer insisted “I have no idea who that guy was.”
Nonetheless, his offensive output has been on the upswing since. Now, expecting a .400 average and 1.000 OPS line for September would be silly, especially given the BABIP noise that’s come along with his progressing numbers. But that continual improvement over the last five months speaks volumes. Let’s break it down a little further to set up some comps to his career line.
|Before May 31||152||.190||.487||.213||32||3.3%||18.4%||11.3%||56.5%||.228|
|Since May 31||268||.307||.817||.353||129||7.5%||16.8%||23.4%||42.6%||.352|
Since May 31st, Jordy has the highest average among all shortstops in the league. But can he sustain his current level of production?
There’s bound to be some regression ahead. Then again, most signs point to some legitimacy in what he’s doing. His walk and strikeout rate are above past rates and generally aren’t that bad for the early goings of his career. Given more experience at the plate, there should be some peripheral improvement down the road. His batted ball statistics are all in sync above his career standards as well. The only real concern is the bulky BABIP, but quantifying luck has never come easy.
Not found in the table are Mercer’s splits against righties and lefties this season. He’s slashing a sweet .326/.364/.467 line versus left-handers, in comparison to a .244/.297/.357 line against righties. With all the bumps and bruises in the Burgh, Mercer will continue to see his name appear near the top of the lineup card when opposing southpaws take the mound.
Combine the lingering injuries with some unsteady fielding from those who usually frequent the heart of the Pirates lineup – McCutchen, Walker, and Alvarez – and the door remains wide open for Mercer. Any way we slice it, he has a crucial role to play down the stretch if the Buccos dream of dressing in October. If he plays it right, and then resigns in Pittsburgh this winter, Mercer will have the opportunity to grow alongside Cutch, Polanco, Marte and Harrison amidst their primes and set a new standard for Steel City shortstops.