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Monday, April 24, 2006

Better Know a Red #10 - Kent Mercker

In part 10 of our ongoing 25-part series, Better Know a Red, we turn our attention to the Reds' veteran left-handed reliever, Kent Mercker. Mercker was originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the first round (fifth overall pick) of the 1986 amateur draft. He made it to the Braves' major league team in 1989, and was an important cog out of their bullpen during the initial years of the Braves' amazing NL East dominance. In 1995, his free agent year, Atlanta gave him 26 starts. Mercker responded by going 7-8 with a 4.15 ERA, and then left as a free agent. With that move, he began 5 years as a journeyman starter/long reliever with varying success. His best year during that time was probably with the Cincinnati Reds in 1997, when he went 8-11 with a 3.92 ERA in 25 starts. His success soon dropped off, however, and after a difficult season with the Angels in 2000, Mercker found himself unemployed and without work at 32 years of age.
Update
: As per usual, RHM does a much better job with biographical information: apparently a big part of the reason that Mercker sat out the 2001 season is that he had a brain hemorrhage. Missed that. Yikes.

Mercker broke back in, with very limited success, as a reliever with the Rockies in 2002, but soon followed that with an outstanding year for the Reds and Braves in 2003. After another successful season with the Cubs in '04, Mercker resigned with the Reds for 2005 and became one of our few reliable relievers. The Reds are really counting on him for more of the same this year.

As always, additional biographical information on Mercker can be found in his profile in Red Hot Mama's Human League.

Historical Stats (for explanation of the stats used in this profile, please see the Baseball Statistics Quicksheet in the sidebar):
Year/Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP PERA VORP GB%
2003/CIN 38.3 9.6 5.9 1.17 0.265 2.35 4.71 4.70 10.9 45%
2003/ATL 17.0 3.7 3.7 0.53 0.241 1.06 4.38 4.32 7.6 37%
2004/CHN 53.0 8.7 4.6 0.68 0.254 2.55 3.95 4.15 18.8 41%
2005/CIN 61.7 6.6 2.8 1.17 0.295 3.65 4.50 4.62 10.8 44%
Rather unusual numbers for Mercker. First, his ERA has been well below both his FIP and his PERA in each of the past three years. My guess is that we're dealing with small sample size/chance issues here, but it is also possible that he's one of the rare pitchers who "beat" the curve and performs better than you'd expect him to perform based on his peripherals. The other thing that's interesting is that while the result, in terms of ERA, has been roughly the same, his peripherals have been very inconsistent. While in '03 and '04 he was very much a strikeout pitcher (~9 k/9), last year his strikeouts were significantly down. And yet his control was also dramatically better, dropping from a fairly poor 4.5-5.5 bb/9 to an above-average 2.8 bb/9. He also varies from roughly average to well below average in terms of home runs per nine innings. I think what we're seeing here is a pitcher who is slowly fading in ability, but has been able to make adjustments to have continued success. He is 38 this year, and therefore is unlikely to get much better. But if he's able to maintain his improved control from last year, Mercker should be able to have continued success despite the decline in his stuff evidenced by his reduced strikeout rates in 2005.

'03-'05 Splits:
Category IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP
vs. Left 76 8.5 3.8 0.71 0.270 2.36 3.79
vs. Right 92 7.0 4.5 1.17 0.263 3.12 4.86
Home 90 6.8 3.8 0.90 0.260 2.70 4.39
Away 65 7.6 5.0 0.41 0.302 3.31 3.86
Mercker is a left-handed reliever, and like many lefties he has been dramatically more effective against left-handed batters. His strikeout rates have been higher, he's walked batters at a lower rate, and hasn't allow as many home runs. He is still mostly serviceable against right-handers, although his walk rates across the last three years are unacceptably high given his more pedestrian strikeout and hr-rates. Last year, his primary drop-off in terms of strikeouts was against righties, against whom he struck out only 5 per 9 innings (he also allowed 1.6 hr/9 innings against righties, which is unacceptably high).

Typically, the Reds use Mercker as a late-inning set up man and occasional closer. As he ages and continues to decline, more and more of his value will be in the left-handed specialist role. He clearly can still be very effective in that role, but he should be watched closely--and probably replaced--against right-handers when the game is on the line.

Projections:
Year/Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP PERA VORP GB%
PECOTA75 40.0 6.8 3.4 0.90 0.277 3.33 4.13 4.01 8.6 44%
PECOTA 34.3 6.8 3.4 1.31 0.296 4.40 4.72 4.84 3.5 44%
PECOTA25 34.0 6.9 3.7 1.32 0.310 5.23 4.82 5.49 -0.4 44%
ZiPS 57.0 6.9 4.1 1.11 0.274 4.74 4.62 --- --- ---
Both projection systems predict a decline for Mercker this year. Given the drop in his strikeout rate last year, this is not surprising. All the projections predict that his k-rates will stay at his '05 levels, but that his walk rates will hike back up toward his '03-'04 levels. It's cause for concern, but Mercker has been very good in his role for several years in a row now and I'm not convinced that he won't be able to get the job done this year as well.

The most troubling thing, however, has to be the PECOTA IP-projections, which show him dropping to between 34 and 40 IP this year compared to 50-60 IP the last three years. PECOTA bases its innings pitched projections (as well as all other stats) based on age-specific comparable players. That it predicts 34.3 innings pitched indicates that a number of Mercker's most comparable pitchers had substantially fewer innings pitched at age 38--most likely due to injury, but possibly due to ineffectiveness. We have already seen Mercker's back act up a little bit this season... I just hope he can beat the odds and stay healthy for us this year. If he does that, I look for him to continue to be our most reliable left-hander out of the pen.

References:
Baseball Archive, The
Baseball Cube, The
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Prospectus '06 Annual
Baseball Reference
Baseball Think Factory
CBS Sportsline
Fan Graphs
Hardball Times '06 Annual