Matt Mervis Displaying Incredible Plate Discipline, Could Be Close to Forcing Cubs’ Hand

There was a fair bit of grumbling among the fanbase when it became evident that breakout system star Matt Mervis wasn’t going to break camp with the big club. Between Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini, the Cubs had added two veteran players with four Gold Gloves and two World Series titles to serve as a platoon at first base and designated hitter. That the better hitter has sometimes played first while the former Gold Glover with a propensity for grounders serves as DH might be a head-scratcher, but perhaps there’s a method to the madness.

If we assume Mervis is called up at some point, and we’ll get to the incredibly strong case he continues to build, one of either Mancini or Hosmer will be displaced. And since Mancini is a right-handed hitter on a two-year deal while Hosmer is being paid the league minimum as a lefty with very little pop remaining, it’s pretty easy to see who’s more expendable. I’ve been noodling on this and saw it noted elsewhere that it’s likely David Ross and the front office are keeping Mancini active at first while scaling back Hosmer’s time there to prep for the eventuality of Mervis being promoted.

This isn’t a Hosmer bash session, though I think it’s perfectly fair to be realistic about his very low ceiling and poor fit with an offense that needs more power. Even accounting for a sample of just 43 plate appearances, a .051 ISO with a 67% groundball rate makes the Hosmer more or less the definition of a replacement-level player. Or, since we’re talking about Mervis forcing his way up, a very replaceable player.

Heading into Sunday’s game against the Dodgers, the Cubs are right in the middle of the pack with 16 home runs. Half of those have come from Patrick Wisdom and Yan Gomes, and half of those have come in the last two games. The Cubs have an approach based largely on contact that sees them hovering around the lower third of MLB in walks and the upper third (in a good way) when it comes to striking out.

They’re middling in terms of ISO, which matches up with the homer total, and they’re 11th with a .337 OBP. A 47.1% grounder rate means they’re a little more reliant on getting the benefit of shift restrictions than you’d like to see, though they are getting more aggressive on the bases and their 17 steals are tied with the Mets for fifth in baseball. It’s a formula that led to competitive baseball so far, but what if there was a way to increase their margin for error with one move?

Enter Mervis, who cooled a bit after opening the season with a big game and has now rebounded thanks to an incredibly patient approach that appears to be an improvement over last season. More impressive than Mervis’s home run total in 2022 was how he improved his strikeout rate at each of the three levels of the minors he called home.

Over 240 plate appearances at Triple-A Iowa in ’22, he batted .297 with a .416 wOBA and hit 15 homers with 35 strikeouts (14.6%) to 25 walks (10.4%). Through 57 plate appearances this season, Mervis is batting .293 with a .440 wOBA, three homers, and nine strikeouts (15.8%) to 13 walks (22.8%). He’s walked at least once in each of his last eight games, and we’re not talking about taking free passes or being pitched around every time.

Mervis has a .296 ISO with a 38.6% grounder rate across nearly 300 Triple-A PAs so we’re not talking flukes here. For the sake of comparison, Hosmer has a .107 ISO and 57.6% grounder rate over his last two seasons. His skills as a contact hitter — 15.8% K-rate — would offer an argument for him to remain on the roster, but Mervis has struck out at just a 14.6% clip while walking 13.5% of the time at Iowa. Even accounting for obvious differences in sample size and level of play, it’s really difficult to see any reason to keep Mervis in the minors much longer.

I want to repeat that this isn’t a matter of dogging Hosmer, who would remain a decent fit on the roster were there not such a clear upgrade just sitting there waiting to be added to the 40-man. As this stand right now, Hosmer is kind of playing the role of Bryan LaHair by keeping a seat warm for a player with much greater potential to impact the Cubs this season and well into the future.

I’m not necessarily saying Mervis will be the second coming of Anthony Rizzo, if for no other reason than the differences in their personalities, but their offensive profiles sure are looking pretty similar. The balance of contact with power and on-base skills isn’t something you see too often these days, and it’s something the Cubs have been missing since trading Rizzo away. The similarities don’t extend to first base defense, though Mervis has a lot less experience there and should continue to improve over time.

Now I guess we just wait for Jed Hoyer to make like Dave Wasserman and declare that he’s seen enough to say Mervis is ready for Chicago. The slugger was born in Washington, DC and went to school in nearby Bethesda, MD, so it sure would be cool for him to be up with the Cubs when they travel to face the Nationals on May 1.

Ed. note: Matt turns 25 today, so I think it’d be a great idea to celebrate that with a purchase of a M*A*S*H Mervis t-shirt.

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