Jordy Mercer seems like an improved player in 2017.  What has this done to his perceived value in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.    

Before the 2017 season, we profiled Jordy Mercer in our Keep or Trade series.  We pointed out that after a promising 2013 season, he regressed to a below average hitter, slashing a career .257/.313/.377 through 2016.   On the plus side, he established himself as an offensive threat against left handed pitching, with a career on base percentage of .375 against southpaws.  On the negative side, he developed a habit of making outs late in games, with a career .217 average batting in the 7th inning or later.

We also noted that his defense at shortstop was just under league average, where his range was limited, but made up for by his sure-handedness and above average arm.  Overall we thought Mercer was just below league average on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.  This caused us to speculate that the Pittsburgh Pirates may be better off trading for a shortstop that provided better offense at the expense of defense or vice-versa.  A shortstop that provided both would probably be beyond the Pirates’ ability to sign.

Mercer’s Slow Start and Hot Summer

Mercer began the 2017 season in a slump – at least statistically – batting .220 in April.  Mercer kept telling everyone that he was hitting the ball hard, but getting unlucky.  Sure enough, as May rolled around, Mercer’s luck started to change and he improved to a .278 average for the month.  In June, he went on a mini tear, slashing .297/.347/.462 for the month.

In 2017, his slash line with runners in scoring position is .303/.439/.438.

Unfortunately, this did not continue in July and August.  Although he continued to keep a high .461 slugging percentage in July, Mercer’s slash line for the month of August dropped to .192/.241/.308.  He was not making hard contact as often as he did in the opening months of the season.  Fatigue may have been a factor as Mercer’s offensive performance has dropped off like this in past seasons.

All in all, in games played through August 8th, 2017, Mercer is hitting just above at his career numbers for the season.  He is slashing .258/.333/.411 in 2017 with a slugging percentage buoyed by 10 home runs.  In the long ball department, Mercer is on pace to eclipse his previous season high of 12.  Otherwise, batting performance is fairly pedestrian – aided by 194 plate appearances in the number 8 position where he often is walked or pitched around.  His previous platoon advantage versus LHP has not manifested in 2017.  Mercer is hitting for only a .222 average against southpaws over 102 plate appearances.

Clutch Hitting?

So why does Mercer seem like he is hitting better than his statistics indicate?  The answer lies in his over-achieving performance with runners in scoring position.  In 2017, his slash line with runners in scoring position is .303/.439/.438.  His batting average with at least one runner on base is .296. At-bats with runners in scoring position tend to stick in one’s mind and promote positive thoughts about a player.   Just like striking out with the bases loaded causes one to think a hitter is bad.  Neither is statistically true.

One of the things that Mercer does well is situational hitting.  He has demonstrated that he can hit the ball to the correct side of the field or hit the ball in the air when required.  Mercer can be counted on to hit the ball to the right side of the field with a runner on second and less than 2 outs.  Mercer also does a nice job of “shooting the gap” on the right side of the infield when there is a runner being held on first base.  Mercer only has 2 sacrifice flies on the season, but he is almost always lofting the ball in the air with a runner on third and less than 2 outs.  If Mercer comes to the plate when the previous two hitters have made quick outs, you can bet on a 6 pitch or greater at-bat.  He does what he can to help the team score runs even if it doesn’t help is own personal stat line.

One of the things that Mercer does well is situational hitting. 

Mercer also is doing much better this season in the later innings.  What was previously a huge weakness for the shortstop has become a strength so far this season.  In the 7th inning or later, Mercer has a respectable on-base percentage of .347.  Mercer has come up with some big hits late in games this season.  This can be a true area of sustained improvement for a veteran players.

However, It is more likely that Mercer has enjoyed a run of good luck in these statistical categories .  Time after time, it has been proven that hitting with runners in scoring position is not a sustainable skill.  This is the kind of statistic that reverts to the player’s average over a large number of data points.  In this case, it is likely the Mercer will finish the 2017 season with a RISP batting average similar to his overall batting average.  Overall, Jordy has not increased his overall offensive value in 2017.

Defensive Improvement

It should be clear to anyone who watches the Pirates regularly that Mercer is playing better defense this season versus 2016.  The advanced statistics support this perception.  FanGraphs rates Mercer’s Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) at 1.7 so far in 2017 versus a rating of -8.4 in 2016.  In 2016, Mercer was bogged down by very poor ratings on his range (the ability to get to a batted ball).  He rated -10.8 in this category in 2016 and is “only” a -1.3 so far this season.  If Mercer can get to a ball, he almost always converts it to an out.  This shows up in his better-than-average ratings on avoiding errors and turning double plays.  All these factors are used to calculate his overall UZR in 1.7.

In general, this is an encouraging sign that Mercer is indeed an above average defensive shortstop as he showed in 2015, and not the flawed defender he displayed in 2016.  Overall, Mercer’s experience at a high-value position and his better than average rating have increased his defensive value in 2017.

Overall Value Assessment

At the start of the season, we said that If the Pirates want to be a better than average team, they need to work tirelessly to field better than average players at all the key positions.  In that light, the Bucs are probably getting slightly better than average defensive prowess in exchange for less than average offensive production from their starting shortstop.

In the end, Mercer’s career slash line is right at the 2016 National League average of .254/.322/.412.  Even with an improved defensive repertoire, he is at best a middle-of-the-pack of National League shortstops.

Mercer has 1 year left on his contract and will be in arbitration in 2018, followed by free agency in 2019.  The Pittsburgh Pirates will need to either extend him or trade him after the 2017 season.  Mercer has given a lot to the Pittsburgh organization so he deserves one or the other.  He is an experienced, durable player that will give his all for 500+ at-bats every season.  For this reason, there will be teams that desire his durability and stability.  Waiting until he becomes a free agent is not a viable option.

If they go the trade route, the Pirates should look to upgrade the shortstop position either defensively or offensively.  There is a pseudo-offensive option in the organization already in Sean Rodriguez, but this would likely only be a bridge to a prospect like Kevin Newman in 2018 or Cole Tucker in 2019. Adam Frazier has shown he has too many defensive holes to be considered for shortstop duties and Max Moroff did not hit well in limited MLB action.

Most likely the Pirates would have to go outside the organization for a 2018 solution.  Potential free agents in this timeframe could be Erick Aybar if defense is favored or Zack Cozart if offense is more important.  Either option would be an upgrade for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Sean Riley

Sean Riley is a lifelong Pirates fan who now resides in Portland, OR. He is a former executive of several major companies and a published author. His current passion is balancing statistics and good old-fashioned “feel” to provide insight into the game of baseball. Sean is married to a great gal and the father of two amazing boys.