One thought came to mind when watching Ryan Merritt on the mound during game five of the 2016 American League Division Series:
In fact, the memory of Merritt mowing down the powerful Blue Jays lineup in a pivotal playoff game left such an impression on the people of Cleveland that fans sent him and his finance gifts in anticipation of their wedding. It was as kind of a gesture that a fanbase can give a player as ever seen in Cleveland history.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the Indians front office has a decision to make with Merritt: Start the season on the opening day roster or be forced to release him because he’s out of minor league options. It’s a tough decision to make as Merritt has been a valuable commodity that has provided pitching depth to a contending team.
Merritt’s stats won’t impress anybody. In fact, finding numbers that make a case for him starting the season making the road trip to Seattle is hard to come by. Of course, the numbers of which we have to judge Merritt are of little value because of the limited amount of innings he’s thrown at the big league level. Looking at what he did last season, he threw 20.2 innings in five appearances and had an impressive ERA of 1.74. However, his 3.06 FIP and 4.44 xFIP would indicate that his ERA was slighted in luck’s favor. However, he’s not given up a homerun in 31.2 major league innings – an important attribute in the homer-happy era.
This continues the trend of Merritt keeping the ball in the yard. In his entire career including the minor leagues, he’s only had a HR/FB rate above 10% once, his 2017 season at Columbus. That should be considered an outlier as Columbus is a favorable hitters park.
When Merritt takes the mound, he records outs. Period. He may not look pretty doing it but succeeds nonetheless. He’s able to do this by forcing hitters to make weak contact on pitches thrown in the strikezone. With a minimum of 70 batted ball events, Merritt ranked 16th in Major League Baseball in Average Exit Velocity Against (83.4mph) in 2017. As you can see, he performed better than a few notable closers and starters around the league:
There’s no reason to give up on Ryan Merritt. If DFA’d, Merritt would surely be signed (quickly) by another team and inserted into their starting rotation. According to TJ Zuppe at The Athletic, last season…
“the 30 teams in Major League Baseball used 315 starting pitchers — as in, guys who started at least one game last season — which averages out to 10.5 starters per team. The highest volume of starters came from the Mariners, who had 17 hurlers start at least one game. The Indians, meanwhile, were one of three teams to use a minimum of seven, the lowest total in baseball.”
If TJ knows this stat, so do the 29 other Major League Baseball teams. A team will add Merritt without blinking to add much needed rotation depth.
Therefore, the club should keep Merritt and place him in the bullpen. It true that Tribe skipper Terry Francona doesn’t like to carry a long reliever, and the club already has two left-handed pen arms in Andrew Miller and Tyler Olson. However, being in the ‘pen will allow Francona the opportunity to use Merritt in spot starts when needed.
It’s rare for a club to make it through an entire season with just five or six starters. Zuppe continued:
“…MLB teams used 310 starters in 2016 and 313 in 2015. Over the past three years, the Tribe has averaged nine starters per campaign, using seven starters for at least 24 starts. And they’re on the fortunate side.”
Merritt has continued to be the “bulldog” he was in the ’16 ALCS – being recalled and sent down several times in the past two seasons when the Tribe needed a 25th man. While there’s only one spot open in the bullpen, Merritt has earned the right to start the season with the Indians and continue his career with the club that’s molded him.
Doubting the stoic strike-thrower didn’t work out well for Toronto in the ’16 ALCS.
Counting him out now may be just as unwise.