Why Projection Systems Missed on Oscar Mercado

Projections imply a sort of expertise that cannot be mastered. No matter their literal definition, any time a website spits them out to prognosticate a subject’s future worth, they are relentlessly mocked when they are inevitably incorrect. They become fuel and fodder for a fanbase to poke fun at because how could a computer system or formula designed to look at numbers precisely pin a player or team’s worth? Doing so with any sort of precision, especially the precision to with which projections must operate in order to elicit attention, is virtually impossible.

The unpredictable is what makes the enjoyment of sports possible. It’s why the Golden State Warriors of the previous five years or the Alabama versus Clemson college football rivalry grows tiresome to the vast majority of sports fans. No matter the degree to which the Warriors produced aesthetically pleasing basketball. No matter the degree to which Alabama and Clemson perfect the art of football. Greatness becomes boring to an extent in the eyes of many beholders.

When Oscar Mercado was lighting Triple-A pitching on fire in April, it was apparent he was due a call-up to attempt to pacify the dumpster fire that was the Cleveland Indians outfield. Jake Bauers and Carlos Gonzalez and Leonys Martin were beginning to turn into pumpkins, what harm could calling upon the 24-year-old Mercado possibly do? The outfield had bottomed out, essentially. There was no reason to let him dwindle… Except maybe his Steamer projection of 66 wRC+. That projection put him at about 34% worse than the average major league hitter.

These projections are merely tools utilized to make estimates about a player’s current worth and are riddled with expected throes of variance. They are founded in what can essentially be deemed educated guesswork based on a player’s track record. The concept makes theoretical and practical sense but fails to account for a player’s ability to improve at a large scale. As Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindbergh elaborated upon in their book The MVP Machine. The book dances around and elaborates upon an incredible concept – players can improve at a rate that is difficult to project.

While projections are errant by nature, they remain the most useful tool in most cases. One such case that proved an exception to this rule was Oscar Mercado’s rookie campaign. A Steamer projection of 66 wRC+ was not without warrant. His first four seasons of professional ball in the lower levels were unmitigated disasters. In these seasons, he never eclipsed a weighted on base average (wOBA) of 0.300, which is less than pedestrian. Despite these struggles in the rookie and Single-A leagues, the St. Louis Cardinals saw a sliver of gold that was worth mining and promoted him to Double-A for the 2017 season. As Everyone Hates Cleveland’s own Jim Pete highlighted in a well-oriented piece this past spring, it is possible to make these level jumps when you’re a defense first shortstop and have an otherwise oozing toolkit.

In 2016, the switch to center field occurred and he proceeded to swat baseballs at above average rates throughout the remainder of his minor league ventures. The April 2019 Steamer projection took these successful 2017 and 2018 minor league campaigns into account but is guarded against weighing the most recent evidence too heavily. And rightfully so, as baseball tends to be laden with variance so it’s virtually impossible to discern which players’ recent upticks are real and which are lies beholden to a hot spell.

Mercado’s 482 plate appearances since the projection have provided compelling evidence that it was slightly off-base. Yet, his nearly full season wRC+ of 95 in his debut have still only netted him a Steamer projection of 80 for the 2020 season. As they are comprised of well-crafted formulas, projections tend to be stubborn. In this case, they are continuing to underestimate the growing capacity of a 24-year-old with a well-rounded set of skills. It is not the intention of this piece to denigrate projections and perhaps doing so in this manner is waving the white flag to recency bias.

Courtesy of FanGraphs

The recency bias is ever so compelling, however. His first few months in the major leagues were marred by masked success. Mercado was chasing a lot of pitches out of the zone, hinting discipline and pitch recognition struggles. Despite obvious inadequacy in this area, he strung together a couple productive months. The regression came as expected and the season looked to be breaking the wrong way for the rookie. The projection systems were covering the lockers and readying the bottles of champagne.

A funny thing happened. The peaks and valleys boomerang began to do a 180-degree turn towards the beginning of September. Amid his team’s playoff pursuit, the Indians rookie began to flash again. He found success in pulling the baseball. Though baseball traditionists yell into the wind about hitting to all fields, Mercado became another chapter in the developing story about the merits of pulling the baseball. He goes as he pulls.

Courtesy of FanGraphs

The relationship between Mercado’s pull rate and his wRC+ cannot be ignored. They followed the same path throughout the back half of his 2019. When his rolling average wRC+ bottomed out, he was using the whole field to his detriment. When it spiked, he was pulling the baseball. He ended the season on a pull-fueled mission leaving him fresh with the thoughts of major league success heading into the offseason.

A projection of 80 wRC+ is anticipating that Oscar Mercado will resort back to difficulty identifying the zone and forget how to pull the baseball. His distant past suggests this is a distinct possibility, but his most recent outputs argue that it is a ludicrous proposition. With chips on the table, it’s hard to bet against a guy that has tirelessly worked to improve with glowing results over the last three calendar years. Mercado’s winter development and early 2020 outlook will be one of the most compelling storylines of the Cleveland Indians offseason as they look to regain control of an American League Central division that slipped from their grasp. Whatever happens, the Oscar Mercado versus projections battle will only continue to gain traction as he makes his second lap through a major league season.

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