Matt Mervis Talks Continued Success in AFL, Nickname He’d Prefer Went Away

Matt Mervis is doing everything he can to force the Cubs to hand him a roster spot in spring training. After winning the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year award on the strength of a .309 average with 36 homers and 119 RBI across three levels, he headed out to the Arizona Fall League. Normally reserved for players who need to make up for lost time or those at lower levels being rewarded for a strong showing, the AFL seemed like a bit of an odd destination for Mervis.

The pitchers out in Arizona are sure wishing the Cubs had gone a more traditional route with their future first baseman because Mervis continues to mash. He regained a tie for the league lead in homers Wednesday with his fifth clout, which came against a lefty on a 3-0 count. Looks like it was against the kind of inside fastball we were told he could only pop up.

Mervis now has a robust 1.108 OPS to go with those five homers, all of which have been hit in just 39 AFL at-bats. For context, Heston Kjerstad has hit five in 67 at-bats and none of the three players with four dingers have fewer than 40 ABs. Kjerstad also logged just 65 games for the Orioles’ A-ball affiliates this season, while Mervis is grinding it out after 137 games in the Cubs org.

As some had speculated when his AFL assignment was announced, part of the plan was to prepare him for the longer MLB season.

“I was a little tired towards the end of the year and that’s just because I haven’t played a season like this before,” Mervis told Jonathan Mayo on the MLB Pipeline podcast. “Coming from college, it’s a little more spread out. And then last year, I only played about 70-something games, so I’ve played almost twice as many at this point this year.

“But if I’m going to be in the big leagues and hopefully take the Cubs deep into the playoffs, then this is the season I’m going to have to do. So just get my body used to it.”

More than simply preparing for the added workload, Mervis is in Mesa to hone his defense. As a two-way player at Duke, he didn’t get as much work in the field as an everyday first baseman would have. What’s more, an elbow injury in college led to him serving strictly as a DH during one summer league. Rather than just working at first, he’s been taking grounders at short to maintain good footwork and athleticism while also using a smaller glove borrowed from a teammate.

Of course, the extra time in the AFL is also about seeing more pitchers and pitches. with a focus on facing lefties. From the looks of it, Mervis is not experiencing a recurrence of the issues that dogged him early in his professional career when he was pressing a bit to prove himself to his new club.

“I put some pressure on myself, knowing that I’m an older guy — I signed as a free agent, there’s not as much invested in me,” Mervis admitted. “So, yeah, the thoughts crept in once in a while, but like I said, just getting back to work really kept them out.”

There were some flashes during his time at Myrtle Beach, but he was never really able to find a groove as he got stuck in his own head and worried too much about mechanics. This season was a different animal entirely and Mervis dominated from South Bend through Iowa to put up the best offensive campaign by a Cubs prospect since Kris Bryant in 2014. It didn’t quite happen right away, though.

“Not right out of the gate,” Mervis said when asked about when he knew things would be different this season. “It took me probably 10 games, 12 games to start feeling good. And then once I did, I still remember, it was a left-on-left curveball that I hit well to right-center. And after that swing, I was like, ‘Alright, I’m back.’

“Like I didn’t feel that all last year, and I knew once I found that swing and was able to just focus on the pitch instead of trying to hit it a certain way — which is what I did last year, just really mechanical — this year I found that feeling and was able to keep it throughout the whole year.”

The key has been confidence in the knowledge that he’s got more than enough strength to drive the ball without trying to hit for power. Mervis explained to Mayo that his goal is simply to hit hard line drives from gap to gap, with home runs coming as a natural result and not the goal when he steps to the plate. With 41 combined homers so far, I’d say that approach is working.

That kind of production tends to attract attention from fans and it’s even generated a few nicknames, not all of which have landed with the Mervis family. Sounds like we shouldn’t expect to see “Mervert” — a term coined by the moderately contrite @FullCountTommy on Twitter — on an Obvious Shirt any time soon, but you can definitely go out and pick up some M*A*S*H Mervis gear.

“Uh…my parents don’t like that one too much,” Mervis responded when asked about what some of his fans are being called. “Mash Mervis we’re okay with, everyone go buy a t-shirt. Merverts we’re not as high on.”

Ed. note: My best guess as to the moment when everything clicked for Mervis mentally is Sunday, April 17 at Fort Wayne. After working a seven-pitch walk against lefty Noel Vela in his first trip to the plate, Mervis fouled off a 1-2 pitch and smacked a hard single to right. At the time, he was batting .208 with a .551 OPS and no homers. He finished the month of April batting .305 with an .896 OPS and three homers.

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