At the beginning of the 2016 season, Ryan Merritt was one of the top starters for the Columbus Clippers. On May 30, Merritt made his major league debut against the Texas Rangers; he looked phenomenal over 4.1 innings against one of the more potent lineups in baseball, allowing just 1 hit and no runs in his outing.
From there, Ryan headed back to Columbus and would remain there until he made another relief appearance for the Tribe, this time on August 4 against the Minnesota Twins. Again, no runs (this time only over one inning). I had a chance to see him make one of his last AAA starts on August 17 against the Durham Bulls, and I was immediately impressed with his control, his pitch sequencing, and his knee-buckling curveball.
When rosters expanded in September, Merritt found his way back to Cleveland for what we hope will be the final time.
Ryan Merritt: A left-handed Josh Tomlin
Merritt ended his first stint at the MLB level with a grand total of 11.0 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 HR, and 6 K. If that line seems familiar, it's probably because you are thinking that it is very reminiscent of Josh Tomlin, just without the home runs.
Merritt has a lot of similarities to Tomlin, in fact: His fastball tops out around 88-89 MPH, he has impeccable control (which results in very few walks), and he is fantastic at picking the right pitch and putting it where it needs to go. There are, however, a few main differences. Merritt has an incredible curve ball, he gives up fewer than a home run/inning (in the minors, anyway), and he's left-handed.
As we saw with Tomlin over the course of the 2016 season (Matt Schlichting writes about him here), a soft-tossing precision pitcher can have success in the majors. A big test for Merritt next season will be whether or not he can continue to pound the strike zone while avoiding the longball when he's pitted against higher caliber hitters.
An unlikely postseason hero
Ryan Merritt made just one start in the 2016 playoffs, but it was one that no one will soon forget. Merritt wasn't needed in the ALDS thanks to the Cleveland Indians sweeping the Boston Red Sox and ending David Ortiz's career with a whimper instead of a bang [Editor's note: Just another reminder, the Indians swept the Red Sox in the ALDS]. However, in a best of 7 series, the Indians needed another starter in addition to Kluber, Bauer, and Tomlin. And, thanks to Bauer's lacerated drone finger, the bullpen was relied on extensively.
On the eve of Game 5, Jose Bautista came out and said that Ryan Merritt should be shaking in his boots at the prospect of facing the Blue Jays in the Rogers Centre. Welp, Game 5 happened, and here's Merritt's line: 4.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K.
The left-handed rookie with just 11 major league innings under hist belt shut down one of the deadliest lineups in baseball at their home park and sent them home for the rest of the postseason. In the biggest game of his young career, Merritt absolutely lived up to the challenge. Because of his heroics, the internet responded in kind:
Shakin' in his boots pic.twitter.com/jYr6W4N6Xt— Corey Kluber (@CKluber) October 20, 2016
Jose Ramirez (@MrLapara) October 19, 2016
Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) October 20, 2016
However, internet memes aside, the best reaction to Ryan Merritt's game in the ALCS came when fans found out that Ryan was engaged. In the age of internet shopping, Ryan and his fiancee Sarah were registered at several different stores, and fans made sure that their registry was fulfilled in time for their big day.
What will Merritt do in 2017?
During last season when it looked like the Tribe was going to need to call up a rookie pitcher from Triple-A, I compared Mike Clevinger and Ryan Merritt and came to the conclusion that I would prefer to see Clevinger get the nod and be added to the rotation. While I still think that Clevinger can be a viable starter, based on what we saw last season, I'd say that Merritt should be next in line to get any starts should the need arise.
With Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar coming back, the rotation looks to be Kluber-Carrasco-Salazar-Bauer-Tomlin (order may vary). That being said, Merritt may open the year back in Triple-A if the idea is to keep him stretched out as a starter, as opposed to having him sit in the MLB bullpen for (potentially) days at a time. As of now, I do think that Merritt has a future as a starter, and he should be the #6 guy for Cleveland in 2017. Expect to see more of Ryan Merritt's "shaking boots" next season.