Cleveland Indians: What does a year-two leap for Mercado look like?

CLEVELAND, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 20: Oscar Mercado #35 of the Cleveland Indians hits an RBI single during the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Progressive Field on September 20, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 20: Oscar Mercado #35 of the Cleveland Indians hits an RBI single during the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Progressive Field on September 20, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /
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Oscar Mercado shined bright as a rookie for the Cleveland Indians in 2019. Where should the bar be set on expectations for his second season?

The 2019 Cleveland Indians waged a one-step-forward, two-steps-back war of attrition with the indiscriminate injury bug. One of the many reasons they were able to remain in the thick of the AL Wild Card race up until the season’s final weekend anyway was Oscar Mercado.

As the Indians grew disenchanted with Leonys Martin in center field at the beginning of the season, a door opened for Mercado to step into a potential everyday role with the big-league club. He debuted on May 14, and it didn’t take him very long to get going.

The rookie went 0-for-4 in his first appearance, but hit safely in nine of the next 10 games he started. By the end of the month, Mercado had established himself as an everyday fixture as the Indians’ two-hitter. He hopped around the outfield for much of his first full month in the majors, but took hold as Cleveland’s primary center fielder by the end of June.

Mercado was a sight for sore eyes upon his arrival. He injected youth and life into a morbid spring defined by injuries to Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis, a mystifying and prolonged Jose Ramirez slump, and an ill-fated organizational emphasis on giving playing time to aged veterans like Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez.

The ends justify the means, or something like that, because the Indians’ strange path through the first month and a half of the 2019 season ultimately wound up providing the team with its center fielder of the future.

The question now becomes, of course: what can be expected from Mercado in his second year as an MLB player? For insight on that, let’s turn our attention to two of the more glaring holes in Mercado’s plate approach from 2019.

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According to FanGraphs, Mercado provided negative value in runs above average against fastballs. This is a big deal for any MLB hitter, as fastballs are supposed to be the one pitch a player can key in on more often than not.

This isn’t to suggest that hitting a pitch traveling 95-plus miles per hour is “easy,” even if it isn’t breaking or sinking, but this metric certainly lends itself to the idea that Mercado struggled often with the high velocity of major league pitching.

It’s also detrimental considering his spot in the batting order in 2019. Sandwiched in between Lindor and Carlos Santana for much of the year, Mercado was always likely to see a relatively heavy dose of fastballs. This tends to work out well in one way or another once a hitter gives his opponents a reason to think twice about challenging him with one.

Either the hitter continues to see a pitch he can prey on because of how concerned the opposing pitcher is about the guy on base and/or in the on-deck circle; or pitchers start to tread carefully and–if he’s patient enough–he draws more walks. The point is: having a two-hitter who is a below-average batter against fastballs isn’t ideal.

With 482 plate appearances to his credit, Mercado should have built up enough experience in the batter’s box in 2019 to improve upon this going forward.

The next area of Mercado’s offensive game in which he can improve is in his swinging strike rate of 11.3%. This goes hand-in-hand with the evidence that he wasn’t an elite fastball hitter; pitchers could often throw gas straight by him as he’d fail to catch up to it.

But Mercado also didn’t help himself by chasing 31.1% of pitches outside the zone. That’s not an astronomically high number, but it’s far from optimal if a guy isn’t actually making contact on such pitches. For reference, DJ LeMahieu chased 30.2% of pitches outside the zone and made contact on 75%. Mercado made contact on just 55.5% of such swings.

In other words, there are hitters who can swing at “pitchers’ pitches” and spoil them, and then there are hitters like the young Mercado who are more than likely going to wind up spinning their wheels in the same situations.

Mercado slashed .269/.318/.443 in 2019, with 15 homers, 70 runs scored, 15 stolen bases, and nine defensive runs saved in center field (he had five DRS overall, due to small samples in right and left where he was a negative-value defender) in 2019. His defense isn’t going anywhere, so watch out for another solid campaign in that regard.

He’s also already a legitimate 20-homer, 20-steal threat as long as he gets enough plate appearances in 2020. If he improves his plate approach versus fastballs and places an emphasis on fewer swings and misses, he could take massive strides forward in his on-base numbers as well. Doing so would allow him to continue hitting near the top of the order, where 100 runs scored is an optimistic yet not unrealistic end of his spectrum of outcomes in the Indians offense.

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There’s work to be done, but the Indians center fielder laid the groundwork in 2019 for a fine career in Cleveland.