Through a largely frustrating beginning to the season, Yermin Mercedes has been by far the most surprising and exciting offensive player on the White Sox through 16 games. After capturing AL Player of the Week honors for April 1-4, Mercedes has stayed red-hot through the 15 games that he has played, with a batting average of .397, OPS of 1.108, and a whopping wRC+ of 236, including 4 home runs and 12 RBIs. I do not believe Mercedes will challenge Ted Williams' .400 batting average for the season, but what does a sustainable level look like? I took a dive into the numbers to understand.
Yermin Mercedes' journey has been well documented, originally signing a minor-league contract with the Washington Nationals in 2011 and bouncing around between the Nationals, Orioles, Dominican league, and independent league before the Charlotte Knights claimed him off waivers in December of 2017. Mercedes is now playing his rookie season at the ripe age of 28 years old. Just making it to the major leagues is truly a remarkable story of hard work, dedication, and perseverance for Mercedes.
Comparing Mercedes’ major league stats thus far to his career minor league numbers does suggest some regression is on the way. His K% is just 14% so far this season compared to 19% in his 2019 season at AAA Charlotte. More significantly, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a sky-high .439 this year, which is unsustainable for any player. Over the past few seasons in the minor leagues, Yermin’s BABIP has hovered between a more reasonable .300 and .350, showing a major area of regression.
So although his current level of production is unlikely to maintain the entire season, Mercedes has proven that he can be a productive DH at the very least. And how exactly has he done that?
Yermin has been feasting on fastballs so far. Opposing pitchers are throwing him heaters a little over half of the time, and Mercedes is 12-23 with a .739 slugging percentage off those fastballs, all while whiffing only 7% of the time. Mercedes has also done damage against offspeed pitches, going 6-9 with a 1.444 slugging percentage.
The fact that he has been this successful off both fastballs and offspeed pitches speaks to his high-level approach at the plate. Clearly, he understands what pitchers are trying to do when he is at the plate and knows what he needs to do to be successful.
Where Yermin has struggled is against the breaking balls. He is just 4-21 on the young season against breaking pitches with a .381 slugging percentage. He is still dangerous against hanging breaking balls, evidenced by his home run and double off of breaking pitches, so pitchers do still need to approach him with caution. But as the season moves along, I would expect pitchers to attack Mercedes with a lot more breaking balls.
Yermin’s advanced approach also extends to his knowledge of the strike zone. As pitchers have tried to attack him with more breaking balls just outside of the zone, he has done a good job of laying off. Continuing to lay off the tough breaking pitches will be imperative for Mercedes to stay productive so he can see fastballs in hitter-friendly counts.
This will be the most challenging part for Mercedes to keep up his production, simply due to the fact that he is an aggressive hitter. This season, Mercedes is swinging at 49.5% of all pitches he sees, including 35.6% of pitches that are thrown outside of the strike zone. These are both slightly higher than the MLB averages of 46.4% and 30.4%, respectively. If and when Mercedes inevitably does hit a rough patch, not pressing and expanding his zone will be a key to watch.
Mercedes’ emergence has been exactly what the White Sox needed on the heels of Eloy Jimenez’s injury, and watching him on a daily basis has made for several highlights over an inconsistent start for the club. And while expecting him to sustain his MVP-level performance thus far is not reasonable, Mercedes’ advanced approach and power make him a very legitimate threat in the box and potential solution to the White Sox long-standing hole at DH. Let’s just hope we have seen the last of his pitching appearances.