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Pirates

Mercer's improved defense at shortstop gives Pirates a boost

| Monday, Sept. 29, 2014, 9:54 p.m.
Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer catches a ball hit by the Brewers' Jean Segura during a game on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer catches a ball hit by the Brewers' Jean Segura during a game on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, at PNC Park.

Jordy Mercer was alone.

It was just over a year ago in late September at PNC Park, and there was not a player in the empty, funeral-quiet, post-game clubhouse other than the rookie shortstop, who emerged as reporters swarmed around him. His throwing error had been the key play in a late-inning meltdown that allowed the Cincinnati Reds to move into a tie with the Pirates. It was a devastating loss. Mercer was the goat.

Mercer gradually earned more playing time last year, mainly because he had a superior bat to that of veteran Clint Barmes. But his defensive performance was inconsistent. Too often he did not field groundballs cleanly, bobbling and booting them on the infield dirt. Too often he didn't take an efficient route to the ball. And on Sept. 20, 2013, the one steady element of his game, his throwing arm, betrayed him.

But after being a defensive liability last season, a remarkably steady Mercer emerged this season.

While Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison and Russell Martin are expected to receive (and deserving of) MVP votes, Mercer's defensive contributions have gone relatively unnoticed. Mercer hasn't been flashy, but he's become one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. He's a big reason the Pirates are hosting the San Francisco Giants at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the NL Wild Card game.

Had he qualified last season, he would have ranked last among shortstops (.962) in fielding percentage. This season he ranks fifth (.982). He's sucked up groundballs like a Dyson vacuum, and has better range to his right. He has improved to rank fourth in the majors among shortstops (and 30th overall) with nine Defensive Runs Saved, compared to negative value in Defensive Runs Saved last season.

And in a season in which almost every Pirates regular has missed time because of injury, Mercer has been a steady presence at one of the game's most important defensive positions, playing a team-high 149 games.

“I'm just relaxed, more comfortable,” Mercer said. “Being on a stage like this, and getting experience … I'm a way better player than I was last year. Just knowing hitters, knowing ballparks. You see hitters over and over again. You kind of know their tendencies. Same with the ballpark, you learn their surfaces.”

Scouts rave about his improved range and glove work, for which Barmes deserves some credit. He's worked with Mercer on understanding the angles, the geometry of the game. So often in batting practice and infield work, there has been Mercer near Barmes, over his shoulder, listening, watching and learning.

Mercer's arm has always been a strength – he makes the throw from the hole look effortless – but his throws have been remarkably accurate this season. Mercer assisted on 439 plays, made only one throwing error and tied for best among MLB starting shortstops.

The game has slowed down for Mercer, teammate Neil Walker said.

“He's much more relaxed … There's no panic mode with him this year,” Walker said. “He's been able to go out and play every day. He's obviously tremendously talented. I have to imagine he's the biggest shortstop in the league at 6-3. He moves well. He has a good first step. He's quick. He has a very strong arm and is accurate. He has all qualities you want in a shortstop.”

Even before Mercer's fielding woes last season, there was never a guarantee he would stick at shortstop. The Pirates once doubted his ability to do so.

At midseason in Single-A Lynchburg in 2009, Mercer was called into the manager's office. The door closed. He was told he would be switching positions. He was going to play third, and Chase d'Arnaud was going to move up and play short. Shortstop was the only the position he had ever played from high school to his standout career at Oklahoma State. The Pirates made him a third-round pick in 2008 – the third pick of the Huntington Era. In Wednesday's starting lineup, he will be the only draft pick of the Huntington Era.

Mercer worked to get back to shortstop. He returned there and improved every year in the minors, cutting his error total each year from 21 in 2009 to 15, then 12 and then eight in 2012.

This year, he improved at the game's highest level.

“Isn't it kind of amazing that at the end of the season, Jordy Mercer is going to post up as much as anybody,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He has not just broken out, he has proven to be very reliable and dependable.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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