Yesterday I broke down Josh Harrison’s season, noting that he excelled defensively, added some value on the bases, and didn’t provide much value on offense. Today’s season recap about Jordy Mercer is going to be pretty much the same story.
Mercer is far from the best shortstop in the game. Out of 31 qualified shortstops with 400+ plate appearances, he ranked 25th this year with a 1.3 fWAR. His breakdown was similar to Harrison’s. He finished in the bottom third in offense, ranking 22nd in wOBA (.304) and 21st in wRC+ (89). He also tied for the fourth most base running runs among shortstops.
The one key difference here is that Mercer’s defense had a down year this year, after driving his value in previous seasons. He had a -10.1 UZR/150, after putting up a 2.0 last year. He had -9 defensive runs saved, compared to zero last year and nine two years ago. The difference from 2014 to 2016 for Mercer was a swing of 18 runs, which amounts to almost two wins. And if you just look at fielding runs, which is a big part of what makes up his WAR value, he saw a decline of 9.9 runs from last year to this year, which is about one win. This is all to say that with normal defense, Mercer would have put up around a 2.3 fWAR this year, which would have bumped him up a bit to the number 20 spot in the rankings.
That value still leaves a lot to be desired as far as improvements go, although the Pirates have enough offensive production on their team that they can sacrifice some offense at shortstop (and second base as well) in order to upgrade the defense up the middle. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the trade-off from Mercer this year.
Mercer has had positive defensive value in the past. He’s not an elite shortstop defensively, but ranked anywhere from just inside the top ten, to the middle of the pack in advanced defensive metrics from 2014-15. The Pirates needed that production this year, making Mercer’s defensive production just another area where they lost projected value. The hope is that this was just a one year fluke, and that his defense rebounds going forward.
Mercer’s time at shortstop seems limited with the Pirates. He made the jump to the majors in 2013, and took over for Clint Barmes, who provided strong defense but no offense. Mercer provided a slight upgrade on offense, and learned from Barmes to improve his defense by improving his routes to the ball. I could see Mercer switching his role going forward, and playing the Clint Barmes to the top shortstop prospect in the system, Kevin Newman.
Newman was the first round pick in 2015, and had about as good of a season this year as you’d hope for. He started off in Bradenton with a .366/.428/.494 line in 189 plate appearances, with a 9% walk rate and just a 6.3% strikeout rate. He got a promotion to Altoona in mid-June, and continued putting up good numbers. He had a .288/.361/.378 line in 268 at-bats in Double-A, with a 9.7% walk rate and a 9% strikeout rate. He was hit in the side of the face with a pitch around the mid-point of the season, coming close to his eye, but that didn’t seem to impact his hitting the rest of the year, even though he wore a face guard.
The power numbers weren’t big at either level for Newman, and declined in Altoona. He’s got some power to the gaps, and worked in Altoona to narrow his stance in order to get some more power in his game. That seemed to work well, as his isolated power went up after his first few weeks at the level, returning to similar numbers that he had in Bradenton. But power really isn’t going to be part of Newman’s game, and he doesn’t make an attempt to hit for power.
Newman excels with his contact skills at the plate. Just watching him live, he shows an uncanny ability to put the ball in play where the fielders aren’t standing, and does this to all fields. He makes it look easy, as if he’s placing the ball with the bat in a controlled way, rather than taking a swing and hoping it finds open space. His plate patience is another area where he excels, as shown by the fact that he walked more than he struck out at either level, and struck out less than 10% of the time at both levels this year.
The hitting ability should allow Newman to eventually upgrade the offense in Pittsburgh at the shortstop position, over what Jordy Mercer is providing. Mercer has been around a .257 hitter, getting on base at a .313 rate. Newman has the chance to top both of those in a big way, due to his contact ability and plate patience, which are advanced enough that they project for good results in the majors.
In fact, the hitting was so advanced that Newman probably didn’t need nearly as much time as he did in Bradenton. He looked ready for a promotion in April from an offensive perspective, but waited two more months because of the work he did with his defense. He was focused initially on improving his first step quickness by getting into a set position earlier before the pitch was thrown. Once he got comfortable with that, he moved on to improving his routes to the ball.
The Pirates had Newman watching a lot of video of Mercer, trying to get down some of the things he does so well. Mercer sets up early, so that he’s already set when the batter makes contact, rather than sometimes being late like Newman at the start of the year, and just getting down when contact was made. The difference allows Mercer to break for the ball slightly earlier, and will allow Newman to do the same now that he has the same technique down.
I could see Newman taking on Mercer’s role going forward, with Mercer moving to the Barmes role and helping Newman to improve. That could come as early as the middle of the 2017 season if Mercer’s defense struggles again. At the very least, Newman looks like he could take over at some point in 2018. He should be able to match Mercer’s defensive value, while adding more offense and having the chance to be a league average shortstop.
The Pirates have more shortstop prospects below Newman. Their 2014 first rounder, Cole Tucker, has shown improvements with his defense, looking a lot smoother by the end of the 2016 season. Tucker doesn’t have the plate patience that Newman has, with more strikeouts, but still a good walk rate. He does have the potential to make good contact and hit for average, and has more power potential than Newman, which the Pirates are trying to tap into this off-season, by trying to tap into his tall frame.
Stephen Alemais is the best defender of the group, and could go to Bradenton this year. His defense would allow him to move quickly, and will one day allow him to reach the majors at least as a backup infielder. But he’s also been working on some adjustments to improve his hitting consistency. He won’t have a lot of power, but if he can be a guy who hits for average and gets on base at a good rate, then he’d jump to being the top shortstop option of the future, pushing one of Newman or Tucker to second base.
Adrian Valerio has some strong defensive upside, and some offensive potential. However, he’s raw on both sides of the game, showing inconsistent performances on defense due to being a little too wild at times, and swinging for the fences at times on offense, which isn’t his game. He’s more of a project than the other shortstops, but is also younger, and doesn’t need to rush with the other three ahead of him.
Between Newman, Tucker, and Alemais, the Pirates have some good shortstop options emerging through the system who could arrive in the majors in the next year or two. That will likely limit Mercer’s days as the starter, and I think he will eventually pass the torch to Newman, just like Barmes passed the torch to Mercer.