By Jason Shetler
During this past offseason, pretty much all baseball publications and bloggers, including myself, chose Gregory Polanco to be the Pirates breakout player for 2016. Polanco has been off to a hot start the first month of the season. So much so, that he’s currently Top 10 in the Majors in on base percentage at .433. Another Pirate who’s been very good in the early going is Jordy Mercer. While Polanco is looking to breakout this year, could the same also be said for Mercer?
In the second half of 2013, Mercer replaced Clint Barmes as the Pirates regular shortstop, and performed very well, posting a .772 OPS along with a 117 OPS+. For the past two seasons however, he’s really struggled against right-handed pitching with a .619 OPS. His numbers versus left-handers are much better with an OPS of .771. While Mercer’s offense as a whole looks inconsistent, the defense has been steady, particularly in 2014, when he had nine Defensive Runs Saved, a 1.6 dWAR and was rated the sixth best defensive shortstop that year by the Fielding Bible.
As mentioned, Mercer is off to a terrific start to begin 2016. His .380 OBP right now is second best among all big league shortstops, and he’s being used as the Pirates leadoff batter against lefty pitching. Mercer has done a good job of controlling the strikezone, as he’s posted a 9.5% walk rate along with a strikeout rate of 13.7%. Those figures have contributed to him creating runs consistently with a 112 wRC+. It remains to be seen whether or not Mercer can keep up the early success, as he’s put up a .343 BABIP, which indicates the possibility of regression. Even if Mercer isn’t able to sustain his strong numbers and become an All-Star caliber shortstop this season, I think the Pirates would settle for him being above league average offensively, and to show vast improvements compared to the last two years.