There wasn’t a better story in April than Yermín Mercedes emphatically breaking onto the baseball scene, with his chains flopping as he rounded the bases and infectious smile making him an instant fan favorite.
He’s a 28-year-old rookie who battled his way through the minor leagues. Then, when given his first extended chance in the major leagues, he started the season a historic 8-for-8 and launched a 485-foot home run en route to being named the AL Rookie of the Month.
It had all the makings of a Disney movie. His baseball cards went from being $10, to selling for more than $200 on eBay — somehow more than Luis Robert autographed cards. Even MLB The Show made a Topps Now 84-rated gold card, making him one of the best catchers in the first few weeks of the newly-released video game.
One problem: When Mercedes took hold of the designated hitter spot and became a fixture in the heart of the order, he didn’t continue soaring toward MVP heights. It’s been a crashing fall.
To expect anywhere near his April production was unrealistic. He was eventually going to revert back to the mean, though many thought that meant a batting average hovering around .300 and a power bat. Since April, Mercedes has become one of the weakest points of a lineup filled with backups and third-stringers.
It’s caused his season statistics to resemble a league-average hitter, slashing .266/.321/.402 with a 101 wRC+. But it’s been held up by a torrid 22 games in April when Mercedes hit .415/.455/.659 with five home runs and 16 RBIs. Over the past 42 games and 161 plate appearances, though, Mercedes is hitting .184/.248/.259 and has as many home runs (two) as Nick Madrigal over that span. At one point in May, Mercedes went 0-for-25, and he’s threatening to duplicate that after finishing 0-for-19 with nine strikeouts last week.
Janice Scurio had a wonderful breakdown of Mercedes’ struggles a couple of weeks ago, which I highly recommend reading. But since then, Mercedes’ OPS has dipped from .808 to .723, and it’s worth asking whether the White Sox need to make a more drastic move than a mere couple of days off.
His slump is nearing two months, predating Tony La Russa’s criticisms after Mercedes hit a towering home run on a 3-0 pitch during a May 17 blowout.
Mercedes has gone yard just once since, while slashing .140/.209/.180 and striking out 23 times, but he was already starting to regress before setting off a national debate. He was on a then-seasonlong 14-game homerless streak and hit .244/.311/.317 in the first 13 games of May. Sure, his numbers have dropped even more since May 17, but Mercedes was trending in that direction, anyway. La Russa’s comments weren’t the root cause of his downfall, even if they didn’t help.
Pitchers were bound to make adjustments, and so far, Mercedes has swung through balls outside of the strike zone. They’re throwing him inside of the strike zone, which is where he swings and misses the most often and has his lowest xBA. Pitchers seem to know he’ll chase pitches, as he’s thrown the 11th-highest percentage of pitches out of the zone (55.1%) among players with at least 150 batted balls.
Mercedes has always been an extremely aggressive hitter, swinging at 51.1% of pitches in April. But he’s been trying to hit his way out of the slump. In May, he swung at 56.3% of pitches, and so far in June, has offered 53.8% of the time. While Mercedes doesn’t need to be as selective as Yasmani Grandal, it’d be a better idea to work the count more than his current approach. There’s been too many times Mercedes’ at-bats fly by, with the same image of him swinging at a ball to end the at-bat.
Mercedes’ chase percentage increased from 37.1% in April to 44.4% in May. He specifically started chasing more breaking pitches. As Mercedes expanded his strike zone, he started to make even less contact, no matter where the pitch was located. In May, Mercedes swung and missed at 50% of off-speed pitches in the zone. However, as that reverted back to a more normal 20% in June, he’s now whiffing on 31.3% of breaking pitches. It’s led to strikeouts almost twice as often during his slump compared to his scorching-hot April, putting his 18.5 strikeout percentage in the 71st percentile.
His 22.6% in-zone whiff rate in June is equivalent to Grandal’s season average, except Mercedes doesn’t sport the same eye to draw walks. And when Mercedes makes contact, it’s oftentimes routine outs, with no extra-base hits.
Due to his 485-foot bomb earlier in the year, along with a max exit velocity of 116.8 mph, which still ranks fifth in baseball, Mercedes’ identity grew as a baseball destroyer. But the opposite has been true. His hard-hit rate (29.9%) is the 15th-lowest in baseball among players with at least 150 batted balls, and he’s in the 23rd percentile in average exit velocity (87.8 mph). The power is still there, because he showed it earlier this year, but it needs to be unlocked again.
That’s been due to an increasing pop-up rate. Mercedes had a 24.3% line drive rate in April — comparable to players like Gleyber Torres, Will Smith and Trea Turner — but in June, it dropped to 16.7%, which would be the fifth-lowest over a full season. Meanwhile, Mercedes popped it up 13.2% of the time in May (8.3% in June), which would be the sixth-highest percentage in baseball over a full season.
That’s an important discrepancy, especially for Mercedes. He’s hit .725, with six doubles, on line drives. Hitters want to drive the ball, so it’s not a surprise he has an extremely high batting average on line drives. That said, he’s hitting nearly 100 points higher on line drives than the league average (.638).
It’s been well-documented how Mercedes gets rid of his big leg kick in two-strike counts, but it becomes less endearing when it doesn’t produce power results early in counts. Evidenced by his strikeouts, even his two-strike approach has started to fail, too. Mercedes’ .537 OPS in two-strike counts is higher than the league average (.496), but it’s fair to wonder how much longer that’ll be the case.
That begs the question: Where do the White Sox go from here?
For one, La Russa moving him down to the No. 8 hole in the series finale against the Astros makes a lot of sense moving forward. He shouldn’t be a fixture at the No. 5 spot behind José Abreu when he doesn’t offer protection to the MVP. Mercedes has hit fifth in the lineup in 44 games, but has a slash line there of .226/.289/.329 in 180 plate appearances.
Also, La Russa should explore the idea of making the designated hitter a platoon, with Mercedes facing left-handed starters (.333/.382/.524), where he’s seen significantly better results compared to righties (.241/.298/.355). Jake Lamb and Zack Collins are both left-handed bats on the bench who have played better since Mercedes’ fall, and both deserve more playing time. It’d be a way to get Collins more at-bats without sacrificing Grandal’s defense behind the plate.
Brian Goodwin is another option to face either handness. He’s hit well since being called up to the majors this season, and had even splits in 2019 with the Angels. Goodwin did struggle last season with the Cincinnati Reds, but it also came in an odd pandemic-shortened season, when he played just 20 games with the Reds (.563 OPS, 43 OPS+) following a .793 OPS (111 OPS+) in his first 30 games with the Angels.
The White Sox could also look at a replacement from Charlotte. They recently called up reliever Zack Burdi when Adam Eaton went on the IL instead of a hitter. That said, it’s hard to keep Mercedes on the major league team when he’s not hitting, because he doesn’t offer anything on defense or the base paths. Sending him to Charlotte would also give him a chance to work on adjustments in lower-leverage situations.
Gavin Sheets, Jake Burger and Tim Beckham all have hit well in Charlotte this season, and could potentially help a depleted lineup.
Sheets (.288/.349/.489 in Triple-A) was called up earlier this season for a couple of days, but didn’t play. He’d provide a much-needed bat against righthanders, with a .928 OPS and six homers in 95 at-bats against righties.
Burger (.277/.320/.555) recently started playing second base for Charlotte, but his main strength comes at the plate against lefties (1.362 OPS), which the White Sox typically hit well.
Beckham (.260/.301/.553) is a 31-year-old veteran, who played 472 career games in the majors to the tune of a 98 OPS+, and makes a lot of sense to fill in for Mercedes and take reps at second base. He can play anywhere in the infield, and similar to Goodwin, he’s simply a quality major leaguer who offers another reliable bat.
Jason Benetti and Steve Stone are right when they say a new hero emerges every game, and the original hero was Mercedes in April. But the lineup can only support so many miscast players before it becomes unsustainable. That was seen in Houston.
And right now, the White Sox need to find a new hero.