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.

The Future

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.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. Did Jordy all of a sudden get worse at defense or did his fall off have something to do with their woeful pitching? I mean the entire team had a defensive drop off. I would be quite surprised if Newman arrived in 2017 w/only a partial year at AAA. Jordy won’t be making the All-Star game as a SS but he isn’t all that bad — compared to what the Pirates have had for the last 20+ years at the position. He’s been fairly durable as well. Ain’t too shabby for a team that can’t seem to draft/develop SS.

  2. Middle Infield should definitely be looked into for 2017. These guys are below average hitters for their positions (which are not big hitting positions to begin with) and, when coupled with the pitcher, combine for a third of our at bats.
    Newman’s ‘impending’ promotion complicates matters like 2016’s Starting Pitching crop did – but I think they need to address it.

    • Tim/John … I remember the site reporting an issue Hanson had with a coach (Cora?), I have heard the term immature applied to Hanson, and I am aware of his struggles trying to get promoted. All of these things seem pretty normal for a kid just hitting the big leagues. However, I have heard rumors from many sites that Hurdle (of all people) has an issue with the kid. I may have missed an article but have you heard anything about this?

      • I’m curious if they’ll ‘risk’ re-injuring our best hitter’s knee by placing him in a double play situation. And his defense was not supposed to be very good there.

  3. Yes, I know the Pirates have SS prospects coming along even though none of them appear to be future super players. However, I’m really confused by the stats indicating Mercer’s defensive wasn’t good. I’m certainly not a scout, but I thought he played quite well defensively this past year. Regardless, the Pirates definitely need to improve up the middle next year.

    • I do wonder how practical the high-OBP concept is for an NL club like the Pirates.

      The OBP>SLG theory – which is perfectly valid – is largely predicated on consistent on-base production throughout the lineup and strips out sequencing, neither of which obviously happen in reality. If the slow and steady churn of OBP-based production hits a point in the lineup where there is now longer high-OBP, essentially the 7-9 slots in most NL lineups, the sequencing breaks down.

      Ike Davis got on base like crazy out of the 7-hole, but that left Mercer against RHP and the pitcher’s spot to drive him in. Do we really think the “expected” run production from all those walks matched reality?

  4. Not high on Alen Hanson having heard that he’s perhaps not much of a team player, also not very coachable? Perhaps just rumors?

    But no mention was made of Jody Mercers arm from shortstop. He’s got one of the strongest and accurate arms we’ve seen at shortstop for the Pirates. Every throw is on the money, into the first baseman’s bread basket. This from a guy they said was too big for middle infield, etc.

  5. I had thought/hoped that SS might be a place the Bucs could upgrade, unfortunately the free agents available are awful – even worse than starting pitchers. No idea who might be available in trades or non tendered.

  6. I do question some of the advance metrics used to define players defensive ability. How does a player go from plus 9 to minus 9 in two years (during his prime)? I would argue Mercer was never as good as he appeared and he probably isn’t as bad as it seems now. I see the same issue with Harrison because I didn’t see the so called great defense he supposedly provide this team.I want to say some of those same Metrics suggested Frazier was a good 2nd basemen as well. I often wonder how many hits get over Harrison head because he stands 5ft 5in. and doesn’t the defensive metrics take that into account. Just wondering.

    • Defensive metrics should be viewed the same as any other stat. For example, if a guy hits .300 one year, he’s not a .300 hitter. If he hits .300 on a regular basis, he could be called a .300 hitter.

      So if you have a bad year defensively, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad defender. If most of your years are bad, then you are a bad defender.

  7. I don’t know, speaking just as a fan, I thought Mercer
    had one of the most reliable and consistent seasons
    of all of the Pirates. I was a little disappointed
    with the title of this article.

    • The title of the article is just pointing out the facts. They drafted shortstops with their first round picks in 2014 and 2015, plus the third round pick in 2016. The 2015 pick looks like he could arrive as early as next year, and the others will be pushing forward as well. Regardless of how Mercer performed, his replacements are on the way.

      • Tim, I realize that there are some real nice SS in the pipeline
        and as you mentioned, including that slick fielding one we saw
        at WV.
        Just speaking though as an uninformed fan, I was
        happy to follow Mercer this year as one of the very few
        Pirates who seemed to have a consistently good season
        compared to many of the players from the 25 man roster
        from day 1 of the season.
        I was a little surprised with the numbers you presented in the article.
        Of course, doesn’t every good MLB team have a plan to
        eventually replace every player on their roster.

          • Yes, thank you…. I guess facts are facts.

            On the other hand, you know what they say about statistics.

            • I know what Mark Twain said. But that quote is usually applied to people who manipulate stats to fit their argument. It doesn’t mean the stats lie. It means you should see how the stats are being used, and see if they’re being used in a misleading way.

              In this case, I go in with a theory for the article, but let the results dictate how the article comes out. So the stats tell the story.

    • It’s not for a lack of instincts and fundamentals, though.

      You can’t teach someone to be naturally quicker, which is what Mercer lacks in order to be an elite defender. I couldn’t think of a better mentor for someone like Newman.

      • I’ll take your word for it on instincts and fundamentals, in which case I could see your point.

        The other aspect that worries me is that the cost to keep him on will be awfully pricey for a mentor. $4M in ’17 and what, maybe $6m-$7m in ’18? Too much, mentor or no. Hire a coach instead.

        • I think the logic is that he’d be non-tendered next winter if Newman shows in ’17 he’s able to take the lion’s share. Mercer would be a pretty good candidate for the Karstens treatment; probably not worth his final year of arb, but still worthy of serving the team at a slightly lower price.

          • Come to think of it, instincts (by definition) can’t be taught. But I’ll take your point that perhaps since Mercer had to work for it he might be well equipped to know what to teach.

  8. If Hanson gets a 25-man spot, they will have several players that can “play” short with him, Kang, Frazier and in an emergency Harrison. I really wouldn’t mind seeing them move Mercer if they can get a decent return. They just don’t have enough roster space for the position players currently on the roster. They are in jeopardy of losing Hason, Rogers, Garcia and Osuna if they don’t get a spot on the active roster. I hope they are able to move a few of them.

  9. One of the reasons I am so high on Alen Hanson is that I am confident that Newman can get to Pittsburgh by June/July, and it would be great to have Hanson there already and hopefully semi-established. Bell 24 at 1B, Hanson 24 at 2B, Kevin Newman 23 at SS, and Austin Meadows 22 and Tyler Glasnow 23 on the way. Mercer would handle Utility IF at all 4 positions.

    That is my idea of the 2017 continuation of the Transition to Youth that started in 2016 with the Rotation. Young, talented, and reasonably priced.

  10. I hadn’t read about how much Mercer’s defense had fallen off. If it continues to degrade, I wonder what they’ll do?

    Play NGoepe or PFlo there? Can either of them hit .200?

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