Oscar Mercado is the Indians Player with the Most to Prove in 2020

Casey Drottar

There are plenty of Cleveland Indians players with something to prove this summer. Such a statement isn’t solely limited to Oscar Mercado.

Franmil Reyes needs to demonstrate that he can hold his own in the outfield. Starters Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac need to build upon last year’s rookie success. Bradley Zimmer, Greg Allen and Jake Bauers have to somehow display their worth despite likely landing on the off-site training program this summer.

When it comes to Mercado, though, the situation is different.

For one, as our own Mark Warmuth pointed out Wednesday, the Indians outfielder has to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump in 2020. This alone is a tough task.

However, not only is a second-year skid something Mercado is trying to dodge, it’s actually an occurrence many around the league expect from him this season.

2020 projections for Mercado are bleak, something I discussed back in February. The skepticism about his rookie campaign is legitimate. It’s as if many believe his 2019 success was nothing but a stroke of good fortune.

Essentially, Mercado is entering 2020 with an everyday center fielder role many seem to doubt he truly earned.

It’s an assessment which sounds strange if you’re viewing this through Cleveland’s perspective. Since February, Mercado has been seen as the Indians’ lone sure-thing in a sea of outfield uncertainty. In the team’s eyes, there’s little to be concerned about when it comes to its second-year center fielder.

This belief isn’t shared among projections outlets.

Depth Charts, Steamer and ZiPS all predict a rocky 2020 for Mercado. They aren’t warning you to be wary of a sophomore slump, they’re basically telling you it’s on the way.

Each outlet sees drops in power, upticks in strikeout rate and notable decreases in overall offensive value. Mercado’s slugging percentage is expected to dip between 40 to 63 points, while his wOBA is predicted to be anywhere from poor (.301) to near-awful (.297).

Overall, ZiPS gave him the “most favorable” projection as far as overall value goes, expecting him to be worth just 0.9 wins above replacement this year.

Months after initially discussing such gloomy predictions for Mercado, they still seem a bit perplexing on the surface.

Each aspect of his 2019 slash line (.269/.318/.443), along with his wOBA (.321), was either near or slightly above league average last season. Yet, Mercado is still receiving significant cynicism, as if projections outlets view his 2019 performance as nothing but a fluke.

Said assessment is something Baseball Savant agrees with, which it hammers home through its Expected Outcome stats.

For reference, Baseball Savant determines Expected Outcome stats by analyzing exit velocity and launch angle of every batted ball, assigning a hit probability based on comparable historic balls in play. It then accumulates these expected outcomes with actual strikeouts, walks and hit-by-pitches to tell a more accurate story of a player’s season through Expected Batting Average (xBA), Expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG) and Expected wOBA (xwOBA).

Despite Mercado’s solid 2019 slash line, his quality of contact was low. His average exit velocity (86.5) and barrel rate (4.1%) ranked at or below the 17th percentile, while his hard hit percentage (33.9%) didn’t land much higher.

As a result, Baseball Savant views several of Mercado’s offensive numbers as deceptive. His xBA (.262) wasn’t much lower than his actual batting average (.269). However, his xSLG (.403) and xwOBA (.308) are both notably below his true numbers noted above.

Basically, Baseball Savant appears to be confirming what projections outlets believe -- Mercado’s rookie debut was far more fluky than his stats portray it to be.

Which is why he has more to prove in the season ahead than any other Indians player.

Mercado was viewed by many as a key contributor last year, helping spark a relatively dormant Cleveland offense upon his May debut. He thrived hitting with runners in scoring position, and also provided some much-needed outfield reliability.

Despite that, Indians fans are being told to assume Mercado falls back to earth this year. That the lack of quality contact in 2019 will eventually catch up to him, that the season ahead will represent a regression to the mean.

Projections have been wrong before, and their pessimistic outlook for Mercado’s 2020 season in no way guarantees struggles for Cleveland’s center fielder.

Still, there’s no denying how little is expected from him in the coming months. It’s up to Mercado to change that narrative, and doing so means proving his offensive numbers weren’t as misleading as Baseball Savant makes them out to be.