Oscar Mercado and the Indians Pursuit of a Starting Caliber Center Fielder

There are certain deals which are constructed on the margins of information asymmetry. These are most often seen where teams make prospect for prospect swaps like the one which netted the Indians Oscar Mercado. In return the Cardinals received Conner Capel; who at the time of the trade was a top 15 prospect in the Indians system with advanced feel for power. While teams can review outside prospects via projection systems and marry it to scouting reports there is an extent to which the makeup and developmental capacity of a player is best known by the organization that has invested multiple years in the player’s development. This level of information asymmetry is particularly fascinating as teams increasingly draw on the same pool of statistics; scouts and data analysts. Alas, in this lens we can begin in the consideration of Oscar Mercado and whether he can provide a long term solution in center field. 

Returning to a certain process there are in my view essentially four tools: baserunning, power, on base ability, and defense. Defense is condensed insofar as the arm is often overvalued as a singular tool is an input into player’s overall run prevention profile. With these overarching traits it is necessary to review where Oscar Mercado is positioned best to contribute. 

Further, it is useful to consider the contextual impact of the position itself. Defense has often been heavily weighted for center fielders and offense a tertiary ability. Yet, baseball is changing, as players increasingly pull the ball in the launch angle revolution the capacity for run prevention of a center fielder is thereby decreased. Spiking strikeout rates and increasing proportions of balls to the corner outfield position makes center field a dull spot. Which is to say; there has to be a path for a player to get close to league average run production to add value in center field.

The first consideration for Mercado? Baserunning. Oscar has above average graded speed and has become increasingly efficient when stealing bases, succeeding close to 75% of the time in 2018 for a total of 37 stolen bases. Improving his spots and stealing 20 bases at the big league level is easily within reach. 

The second? Power. A center fielder does not need elite power but certainly a light-hitting profile does not help in the overarching net run value equation. Positive for Mercado are significant gains in ISO in 2017 and 2018. Once a sub-.100 ISO type Mercado shows a solid .120-.140 ISO frame which creates optimism because ISO has been found to be a strong indicator of future big league power productivity. This is potentially result of a trend of increasing line drive percentage which is the optimal contact type. 

The on-base tool (traditionally hit tool) is the central piece which will determine his big league value because real upside for an above average hit exists for Mercado. There are a couple of key indicators or proxies for hit tool from a statistical perspective. First, K%, plus contact rates are a big start because any time the ball is in play a good outcome can occur. Mercado is increasingly good at putting the ball in play with K% rates under 20%; often significantly below in the minors to the extent that one can expect a sub-20% rate in the big leagues. 

Next one considers two additional proxies or inputs into the hit/on base tool being BABIP and BB%. BABIP being a proxy for contact quality and BB% for plate discipline. Marrying the 2017-2018 line drive percentage with the BABIP in the same period it appears we have significant contact quality gains manifesting in strong BABIPs and in turn on base ability. Still further, there are significant walks rate leaps for a 23 year old in AAA which is an additional positive indicator. It is difficult to observe Mercado’s 2017-2018 samples and not have an inclination that a significant contact point adjustment has been implemented. 

At last, the defense of Oscar Mercado. While center field defense is perhaps less valuable than it was in 2012 it remains an area where Mercado can create positive net run value. A converted infielder, Mercado has taken quickly to center field with a few evaluators seeing a potential plus defender in center field. 

For an Indians team willing to let the second best player on your beer league softball team try out in center field; average offense and slightly above average defense will get it done. Whether Mercado can get to a 100 wRC+ and 20+ stolen bases is unclear but the improved secondary contact indicators would seem to imply that there may be real offensive upside hidden in this young outfielder. 

Follow Mike Hattery – @snarkyhatman

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