The Surprisingly Mixed-League Relevant Jordy Mercer

I’ve written briefly about Jordy Mercer twice before; once a couple months ago, and once in June 2013. I first saw Mercer play back in 2006, when he arrived at Oklahoma State, and I’ve followed his career closely over the eight-plus years since. That piece from last June pretty well encapsulated my feelings about Mercer’s pre-MLB career:

I always wondered whether his hit tool would play at the higher levels.

In college, Mercer was right around a .300 hitter with 25 homers in three seasons. Keep in mind that this was before the NCAA switched to the offense-suppressing new bats; a .300 collegiate hitter wasn’t exactly impressive in that offensive environment. As he climbed through the minors, my concerns seemed valid, as he posted a batting average around .260 at most of his minor-league stops.

Then, last year, something seemed to change. Mercer developed an ability to get on base that he hadn’t shown before. He posted a much-improved .287/.357/.421 slash line in Triple-A, good enough to get him a call to the majors.

On the surface, Mercer seemed to regress into that .260 hitter this year, as he posted a .255/.305/.387 slash over his 555 plate appearances. We’ll get back to that in a minute, because first I need to backtrack and talk about defense for a bit. Specifically, there have always been questions about whether Mercer could stick at shortstop long-term.

Arm strength isn’t a problem — Mercer worked out of the bullpen in college, as OSU’s closer — but his instincts and range were both a bit lacking. In Double-A and Triple-A, Mercer started just over half his games at shortstop, with the majority of his other games split between second and third base, which shows that the organization was far from sold on Mercer’s ability to play short in the majors.

Coming into the season, the Pirates understandably wanted the 27-year-old to focus on his defense, especially his angles to the ball. The Pirates hoped that, if Mercer could improve his first step and his routes, he could overcome his relative lack of pure speed and stick as a full-time shortstop. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened. Mercer was a far better defender in 2014 than he was last year, but his hitting initially suffered greatly with the increased defensive focus.

After hitting for a .285/.336/.435 slash line in 365 plate appearances last year, Mercer’s 2014 got off to a horrific start at the plate. Through the season’s first two months, he fought a losing battle with the Mendoza line, hitting just .199/.218/.274 in 156 PA, with just one homer and no steals. He had drawn just five measly walks, compared to 28 punchouts.

Then, as Mercer continued to look more comfortable in the field, his bat came around. (We could probably throw around causality arguments all day long on this one. I obviously can’t say for certain that Mercer started hitting again as either a direct or indirect result of figuring things out in the field, but the statistical correlation fits perfectly.) From June 1 on, he hit a healthy .278/.331/.433, which is nearly identical to his 2013 line, adding 11 homers and four steals. He also fixed his plate-discipline issues, compiling 30 walks against 61 strikeouts.

Mercer finished 2014 as the No. 14 fantasy shortstop, which in itself greatly outperformed his preseason expectations (our experts had him at No. 26 coming into the year). However, at a position as thin as shortstop, Mercer could be a sneaky candidate to slip into the top ten next year. If he can hit in that .280/.335/.435 range for a full season, he’ll pretty easily be a viable starter in all standard mixed leagues.

When seeking out fantasy sleepers, I love to target guys with what I refer to as “explainable noise” in their prior season’s data set. Explainable noise is a negative outlier in a player’s season-long statistical profile with an anecdotal corollary, such as playing through an injury. Mercer’s early-season sample fits the definition of explainable noise. In his career as a major-league starter, he’s been a ~.770 OPS hitter for nine months, and a ~.500 OPS hitter for a couple months in between.

I don’t think Mercer will ever be more than a second-division regular in real life. However, in fantasy — especially at a position as shallow as shortstop — betting on Mercer’s potential to be that .770 OPS guy for a full season might just pay serious dividends, while likely costing no more than a late-round draft pick or a couple auction dollars. That’s the kind of guy I like to target as a sleeper.

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Nice article Scott! I enjoy these pieces that analyze splits or “from this point in time on” kind of analysis that provides compelling thought as to player performance. Thanks!