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What is the real Oscar Mercado?

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Amazingly, he’s played just 163 big league games and we still don’t know what to make of him

MLB: JUL 15 Tigers at Indians Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What are we to think of Oscar Mercado? Here we have a young player, just now 163 career major league games under his belt, and we’ve seen every shape of what he might be.

In his rookie year, we got a hot start and a slow regression to roughly average, but a glimpse of the raw material that made many think he could be, if not a star, at least a solid piece of the regular starting lineup with 2.2 bWAR in 115 games.

Then 2020 happened, and he fell into a hole, repeatedly. It’s hard to believe that Mercado played 36 games last year, and played them so badly (he hit .128/.174/.174 if you didn’t remember), but dreadful is a good choice of word to describe the outcome.

So there was a burst of potential, followed by utter misery. Then, when all seemed lost he squeezed his way back into the lineup, the beneficiary of so much underperformance and injury, and set the world alight. Though it’s only 12 games, you can’t be mad about a .281/.343/.500 line, or the booming home run against the Royals, or the still incredible speed. In these 12 games, Mercado has performed like nothing less than a star. So it must be wondered, after 163 games, after being a curious rookie, after dealing with a pandemic, and now making moves toward relevancy — what is he?

It’s hard to glean much of anything from 12 games. The analyst in me is telling the fan in me to shut the hell up. That said, what can we truly believe out of 36 games during possibly the oddest season in baseball history? If we decide the hideous line he posted there is real, are we also to believe that Nick Castallanos’ .225/.298/.486, or that José Ramírez is the best player in baseball? I could be convinced of the second very easily, but there were so many variables, so much strangeness, and coming into that as a second-year player who needs to build off a decent rookie campaign was a tough task for Mercado.

It’s not even like he was particularly dreadful in 2020, just unlucky. He wasn’t good, but he wasn’t “shoot out of a cannon into the sun” bad either. His 32.8% hard-hit rate was about a point off his career average to this point and his BABIP was .169, while he walked at about the same rate he did in 2019. He struck out a ton, but with literally only 61 batted ball events, there’s too much noise to look at things like his batted ball profile for that year.

That said, we can say the same about the 23 batted ball events he’s had this year. He’s right in line in career exit velocity at 88.2 mph this year, though he’s elevated his launch angle in this short span of time to 18.2 degrees, compared to 14 and change in both 2019 and 2020. What’s most interesting, on top of that elevated launch angle, is he’s pulled 47.8% of batted balls so far this season. Is that on purpose? We can’t know for sure, especially with so much noise and the size of the sample, but it’s something to look at very hard.

The key to all this is, again, he’s just got 610 career plate appearances. Literally just a season’s worth of baseball. In a normal world, he’d have a chance to break out (2019), have pitchers adjust to him (2020), and then figure out what he can do to mitigate what they’re trying to do to him (2021). It could be that his rookie experience has merely been spread out over three calendar years. If last year and this are equalized out — and they are by bWAR, that’s how bad he was last season and how good this outburst has been, each worth 0.4 bWAR above or below zero — and he’s just what we saw in 2019, that’s pretty good. That’s the kind of player that fits in the bottom third of all lineup and gives you a boost now and again.

I don’t need stardom from Mercado. I’d like it, but I’d like to find a brick of cash on the ground too. Whether this dozen-game stretch is a blip or the makings of an adjustment, it’s at least something to keep an eye on as the team evolves.

It’s nice to find small, encouraging things from players you want to succeed, and this, at the very least, is what we are seeing from Oscar Mercado.