Going Deep: Oscar Mercado, Return of the Last Crusade’s Revolutions From Beyond the Thunderdome, Part III

For writers, trilogies have always seemed the way to go. You get to spend the right amount of time with the characters involved without overstaying your welcome or the story getting stale.  They create a sense of building to something and creating some sort of closure.  The thing we don’t realize about trilogies is that they are often unplanned. The first story ends up a huge hit, the people want more, a sequel gets made, but once you have the second tale you have to create a third to bring everything full circle—for symmetry’s sake if nothing else. It’s the natural order of story-telling. Inadvertently, over the last few weeks, I have created something of a trilogy myself.

It all began in a galaxy/foreign land/post-apocalyptic wasteland far, far away (aka one month ago) right around when all the rumblings start to come out about the effects the new ball was having on the game. As I learned more and more on the subject, I began to wonder if there was a particular type of hitter who would benefit from said new ball more than other profiles. While that research is still a few weeks off from being put together, I did come across a profile I noticed cropping up quite a bit, that of the ground-ball hitting speedster who had found new success by increasing their FB%/Launch Angle.  First, we came across Mallex Smith, a speedster who was able to reinvent himself after a trip down to the minors early in 2019. Spurred on by the response to my subsequent write-up on Smith’s new approach, I figured it made sense to talk about another player I stumbled upon during my earlier research: Ramon Laureano. Laureano didn’t need the trip down to AAA, but he did get off to a similarly slow start in April and the adjustment was incredibly similar to Smith’s. Now the sequel is out there—so where is the denouement, that third tale that ties everything together in a nice little bow? Today we’re going to talk about Indians center fielder Oscar Mercado.

In the first chapter of our trilogy, Mallex Smith required a stint in AAA while Ramon Laureano struggled in April before making his leap while forgoing the trip to the minors.  Mercado on the other hand needed no return to minor leagues, nor has he struggled since being called up on May 15th.  Over his 167 PA in 2019 he’s managed an impressive .314/.360/.837 batting line with 5 HRs, 28 Runs, 17 RBIs and 6 SBs. For perspective, this is what that would extrapolate out to if you prorated it over a full 650 PA season.

 

PA AVG HRs Runs RBI SB
167 .314 4 28 17 6
650 .314 16 109 66 23

 

Those are pretty solid numbers. A .314 AVG is no joke. That ranks 20th in the league among all players with at least 150 PA and 10th among all outfielders. 23 SB would have been tied for 17th in the league last year and ninth among outfielders.  109 runs would have finished 9th in MLB and fifth among outfielders. That’s three categories in which Mercado has shown game-changing potential so far in 2019. It’s also worth noting that if Mercado were able to continue his doubles pace for a full season he shows signs of being able to hit 40+ doubles, which could easily turn into additional power as he gets older and stronger. Time to dig deeper by looking at Mercado’s 2019 advanced stats.

 

BB% K% ISO wRC+ wOBA BABIP
4.2% 18.0% .163 120 .356 .370

 

That’s a solid ISO for a line-drive speedster like Mercado, while his wRC+ and wOBA show he has been an above-average hitter so far. There are three numbers here worth further exploration though: his BB%, K%, and his BABIP.

It’s likely that right off the bat the BB% sticks out like a sore thumb. 4.2% isn’t ideal by any means and seems especially low when you consider that he hasn’t had a BB% below 6.1% at any level since 2015 in A-Ball. With that being said, he also has only one stint since 2016 with a sub 18.0 K% so he’s striking out way less often as well.  So what is driving these two numbers so far out of whack? I suspect the answer lies in his plate discipline numbers. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Mercado’s plate discipline numbers from the minors for comparison’s sake, so we’ll have to shoot from the hip a bit, but I think we can get at least some idea from his major league numbers so far and where they rank among the 291 players with more than 150 PA.

 

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
34.4% 78.4% 52.1% 57.6% 90.6% 77.6% 40.3% 58.7% 11.7%
79th highest Tied for 22nd Highest 50th Highest 211th Highest 47th Highest 130 Highest 217th Highest 199th Highest 117th Highest

 

There’s good and bad here. First the bad: His O-Swing% is in the bottom half of our qualified player range, along with his O-Contact%, Zone%, and F-Strike%. This says to me that he has a habit of chasing pitches outside the zone and most pitchers know it; when he does chase he has a tendency to not make contact. I think it’s not as bad as it looks though. Here’s a chart of the pitch location for all 59 pitches outside of the zone that Mercado has swung at in 2019.

 

 

As you can see, most of those are pretty close to the zone, with his real problem area being down and away. At the very least, having the majority of the chase pitches that close shows that he might not be that far off from correcting his O-Swing% issues as he gets a better feel for the zone. The other way to think about it is that he’s actually had some success with pitches outside the zone when he does make contact, as seven of his 48 hits (14.5%) have come on pitches outside of the zone.  Those hits had an average launch angle of 12.3 degrees and an average exit velocity of 81.3 MPH with six singles and one home run. Those hits had an xBA of .499 and an xSLG of .671, so it’s hard to blame him for swinging at those pitches. In fact, if you include all the pitches he made contact with, you find a .349 xBA, so perhaps he has some ability to handle pitches away and outside the zone.

On the other side of the coin, Mercado swings as a huge amount of pitches inside the zone and when he does he makes a ton of contact. I feel this is the key to understanding the lowered BB% (and likely the improved K%). Even though his F-Strike% and Zone% are not particularly high, when he gets a pitch in the zone he is often swinging at it and hitting it.  He’s having a ton of success when he does so.  So far in 2019 Mercado has swung at 222 pitches in the zone. Of those, he has made contact (including foul balls) with 180 pitches for 41 hits.  He put 108 such pitches into play with 71 (65.7%) of them coming with either fewer than two strikes or fewer than three balls, which could help explain why he’s both walking and striking out less.  He’s simply not ending up in as many situations where he has the chance to strike out or walk.

Now, what about that BABIP? A .370 BABIP is really, really high (implying that Mercado is getting lucky) and by all means, is probably (definitely) unsustainable. Or is it? One of the common assumptions about BABIP is that it is not unusual for a player with great speed to have an abnormally high BABIP. While there quite a bit of debate over the validity of this statement (speed in and of itself does not actually seem to guarantee a high BABIP at all), I think it’s closer than we’d like to admit. One of the most common things that can elevate a BABIP is infield hits. They usually aren’t great hits and for most everyone would be simple outs, but when a hitter has good speed some of those sure outs become hits. Here are Mercado’s infield hit numbers and what his BABIP would adjust to without them. For good measure, I’ve also included xBA so we can get a better idea of how lucky Mercado is getting.

 

Infield Hits IFH% BABIP BABIP w/o IFH AVG xBA AVG w/o IFH
6 11.8% .370 .319 .314 .268 .275

 

This set my mind at ease about Mercado’s BABIP.  See, Mercado has put together an average sprint speed of 29.0 feet per second which is the 36th best in the league. Mercado can motor, so it’s no surprise he beats out poorly hit ground balls with his wheels. In fact, his 11.8 IFH is 17th in the league, so he’s clearly using his speed as a weapon. Now look at what happens if we take away those infield hits. Suddenly his BABIP is much closer to what we might expect without those infield hits. You can also see that if you take away the infield hits his AVG sits very close to his xBA, which makes sense because xBA would not label most infield hits as legit hits. It’s almost like Mercado is tricking his BABIP and xBA into labeling those hits as lucky, and while they are lucky to a certain degree, I’d argue that with Mercado’s speed they’re something he’ll get with regularity.

Finally, let’s touch on Mercado’s launch angle. Let’s cut right to the chase and tear apart Mercado’s Average launch angle of 11.5° by checking out his launch angle chart for the season.

 

 

Other than that lone grey spike below 0, this is a pretty perfect chart. Almost all of the hits are line drives.  It’s like seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time. Now of course it’s worth remembering it’s just a 167 PA sample size so this could just be one long hot streak, but it’s impressive nonetheless. It also looks really familiar right? In fact, let’s play a game real quick. Here is the launch angle chart from Mallex Smith’s 2019:

 

 

And here’s Ramon Laureano’s:

 

 

All those charts are really, really similar. In fact, let’s follow through and look at a few more stats:

 

Player BB% K% Launch Angle Exit Velocity Pull% FB% LD% HR/FB% ISO wRC+ wOBA
Smith 7.4% 25.1% 9.4 85.1 35.5% 32.3% 20.0% 7.9% .130 81 .285
Laureano 5.1% 27.8% 15.2 89.9 43.1% 39.4% 25.2% 9.1% .185 101 .319
Mercado 4.2% 18.0% 11.6 86.7 36.4% 37.3% 21.5% 9.1% .163 120 .356

 

It’s almost like someone merged Smith and Laureano into one player and came up with the perfect mix in Mercado. The result is obvious in that he outshines the other two in terms of wRC+ and wOBA.  There are other similarities. Smith is an elite stolen base threat, while Laureano is an above-average runner. Mercado has Smith’s elite speed but more of Laureano’s stolen base pace. He has closer to Laureano’s HR/FB% but much closer to Smith’s FB%.  It’s no coincidence that these three players were the ones that caught my eye when looking for specific batting profiles.  They have had very similar years with Mercado having the sole stretch without any real struggle. If you saw something that caught your eye in my pieces about Laureano and Smith that made you add or want to add those players, then you should be similarly intrigued by Mercado.

So what does this all mean for Mercado? What should we expect the rest of his season to look like? It’s a tough call, as much like trying to discuss players early on in the season it’s tough to draw a conclusion with 167 PA on the season, which is just past the point where we start to see these numbers stabilize. He could continue to grow as he gets more acclimated to the league or he could fall into a funk and never get out it. He could simply continue some facsimile of his current production. He could run more; he could run less. My honest guess is most of the second half will be a mix of all three. Listen, there’s absolutely a cold streak coming at some point for Mercado—that’s just the nature of baseball. It’s unlikely all of that .370 BABIP is going to stick around all season, but given his batted ball data so far and his blazing speed think somewhere in the .340 or .350 range isn’t unreasonable. That should allow his average to stick somewhere around .295 to .300 most likely.  He’s currently batting second in the Cleveland lineup, which has been a top ten offense for most of this month, so the runs and stolen base opportunities will definitely be there should he continue to perform. I think it would be reasonable (given that his production doesn’t fall off and he ends up out of the lineup) that we could expect something like a .285 – .295 AVG with 8-10 more HR, 15-20 more SBs, 50-60 more runs, and 25 more RBIs. It’s also worth noting that Mercado’s doubles power plays up in points leagues which acts as a nice bonus.  Sure that isn’t a break-the-bank/win-your-league sort of player, but if you’re looking for a fourth or fifth outfielder or are hurting in SBs, Mercado is a great hitter to pick up on the cheap (He’s around 40-60% owned on the major fantasy baseball platforms). I definitely recommend going after him, especially if you missed out on the other two hitters in this trilogy.

(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

Daniel Port

Daniel is a Fantasy Baseball writer, Brewer, and Theatrical Technician, located in Denver, Colorado. A lifelong fan of baseball and the Cleveland Indians since before Albert Belle tried to murder Fernando Vina, he used to tell his Mom he loved her using Sammy Sosa's home run salute, has a perfectly reasonable amount of love for Joey Votto and believes everything in life should be announced using bat flips. If you want to talk baseball, beer, or really anything at all you can find him on twitter at @DanielJPort !

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