We’re counting down to our top-10 best Indians players of 2019 as voted on by the Let’s Go Tribe staff. Follow along here, and keep reading until October 26 when the team MVP is revealed.
The success rate on prospects, as we know, does not equal the hype that comes with them overall. Oscar Mercado always stood out as a glimmer of hope for the Indians’ questionable outfield entering the 2019 season, and upon his call-up in mid-May, the 24-year-old backed it up.
Occasionally, these prospects have solid-to-great seasons, then are figured out and fade into obscurity (see: Coghlan, Chris; or Crosby, Bobby). While Mercado will likely only be mentioned in the Rookie of the Year voting, he showed growth, adjusting to the book on him as it was written. At least towards the end of the season.
Predictably optioned to Triple-A after a hot spring, it seemed only a matter of time until the speedster was given his call. After an equally hot 30 games at Columbus, a month and a half of .500 baseball from the parent club, and Leonys Martín’s slow decline to Nippon Professional Baseball, the opportunity finally presented itself.
Mercado showed an all-around game from the moment he broke through on May 14, posting just about league-average numbers across the board over the full season.
The ebbs and flows hit the rookie hard, as Mercado’s first 32 games saw him slash .311/.368/.492 with a 124 wRC+, but an August swoon saw a slash of .219/.250/.323 with a 44 wRC+.
Despite being simply league average, Mercado gave the Indians what they needed as much as anything, which was a competent, every day outfielder. While Jordan Luplow produced more fWAR in a part-time role than Mercado, the latter could be counted on against righties and lefties.
No Indians center fielder has led the team in innings at the position in back-to-back seasons since (gulp) Michael Bourn in 2014 and 15, and only Tyler Naquin’s 2016 rookie season (2.1) surpassed Mercado’s 2019 in fWAR (1.7) for an Indians full-time CF since Michael Brantley’s 2012 campaign (2.6).
Generally, the most difficult aspect of a hitter’s adjustment to the major leagues will be their command of the strike zone. While it would never be a direct correlation, Mercado’s fate was plenty influenced by his plate discipline.
Sitting at 50.8%, Mercado’s swing-rate tied Josh Reddick for 37th among hitters with 450-or-more plate appearances (83rd percentile). While aggressive in the box, the rookie was not wild, with just a 31.1% swing-rate outside of the zone (50th percentile).
This is a decent sign going forward, showing that Mercado is adept at identifying bad pitches in the early going, and that he could benefit from waiting for better pitches. One other identifier that could be the case is that in his horrid August, Mercado’s 13% K-rate was the best of any month by far, while his soft- and hard-contact rates were his relative worsts.
What could be even more encouraging is Statcast’s attack regions, which show that Mercado’s eye was mostly above average.
In three of the four regions, Mercado was solid, but around the edges of the plate was worth -18 swing runs. Essentially, he does exactly what he is supposed to do in the other three zones, but struggled to read and adjust to the best pitches he saw.
Most hitters’ charts look similar to this, with the hardest zone to hit out of being the spot in which they struggle the most, but to Mercado’s credit, Alex Bregman, José Ramírez and Mike Trout were worth negative runs in the heart of the zone. There is something to those players being elite hitters and not getting much in the heart, just as there is something to Mike Trout being Mike Trout, worth +20(!) in the “shadow” zone.
As a defender, Mercado is still learning center field, but was five outs above average, according to Statcast, tied for 27th in the league. He only struggled while going straight back on balls in center (-1 directional RAA), but was excellent going horizontally. With his 70th percentile jump (Statcast’s measurement of reaction, burst and route) and 97th percentile sprint speed, there looks to be plenty more growth to be had.
If Oscar Mercado can simply play center field with the quality he did in 2019, the Indians will have more production out of the position than they have had from a full-timer in the better part of a decade. There are enough encouraging signs with Mercado to indicate that he will trend upwards, and maybe avoid a sophomore slump. His sheer competence made him valuable for a team looking for anything out of the position, and everything above and beyond was a bonus.