How Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer Became One of the Best 3B/SS Combos in the NL

During the first two months of the season, if I would have told you that the Pittsburgh Pirates would have finished the 2014 season with one of the best shortstop/third base combos in the NL, you would have said I was crazy. Pedro Alvarez couldn’t complete a throw to first base to save his life. Jordy Mercer was struggling offensively, finishing the month of May with a .508 OPS on the season.

But everything changed in June, and the changes are probably one of the biggest factors in why the Pirates are currently in the playoffs.

The big change for Mercer was his offense coming back around. The shortstop started the month going 4-for-5 with a homer, and didn’t look back. He posted a .767 OPS in the final four months of the season.

“It was difficult. To be honest with you, it’s one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had,” Mercer said about his slow start. “Being in the situation I had. Being the everyday guy, and now here, the expectations, and the big leagues. All of that stuff comes into play, and to not start off on the right foot definitely made it worse. I kind of let it pile on me, and I let it get to me.”

Mercer said that support from his family, teammates, and Clint Hurdle helped him get through the struggles. That sounds cliché, but he noted that support goes a long way, especially when you’re a young shortstop in his situation.

“Any time you struggle, that’s kind of one of the things that comes to mind, is demotion, you lose your starting spot, or whatever it might be,” Mercer said. “Having that reassurance of your teammates, of your coaching staff, knowing that ‘You’re our guy, we’re going to stick with you, you’re eventually going to get out of it.’ And I was eventually able to take off from there.”

One thing Mercer did well all year was play defense. Mercer was never considered a strong defensive shortstop, with his offense always being touted first. This year, he was a defense-first guy for the start of the season, and didn’t let his offensive struggles impact that part of his game.

“I was able to separate it,” Mercer said. “I just kept telling myself, if you can play defense, you can play in this game for a long time. I just felt that, if I can’t help the team out in some sort of offensive way, I can save runs.”

Travis Sawchik wrote an article about how Mercer has looked like one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, posting a fourth-best nine Defensive Runs Saved.

“I think it has to do with a lot of experience,” Mercer said on his improvements. “Playing in different parks, different atmospheres, different surfaces. All of that has to do with experience. The more you play, the more you get to know the hitters and their tendencies. I think all of that just came together, and it’s worked out for me real well.”

Mercer credits Clint Barmes with a lot of his improvements, including being a guide for angles to balls, and being there for advice.

“I think more than anything that has helped is him being there for me to ask questions for him,” Mercer said on Barmes. “Not only on the field, but off the field too as well. He’s more of a guy that’s been there. He’s done it before. He kind of knows the ropes. Whenever you have a question, you can go to him for anything.”

Pedro Alvarez didn’t fix his throwing issues at third base, and his offense slumped. Meanwhile, Josh Harrison was having a breakout year as a utility player, while showing some good defense everywhere he played. Harrison led the Pirates with 14 Defensive Runs Saved, including nine at third base. He started getting more time at the position in June and July, and by the middle of August, he was the regular starter.

“I got comfortable at all of [the positions], but now it feels good to be at a position where I can just focus solely on it,” Harrison said about his move to third base impacting his overall play and his defense.

As for the offense, Harrison says that nothing has really changed with his game, except for the fact that he’s not getting the chance to play everyday.

“That utility role on the bench, it’s not easy,” Harrison said. “But somebody has got to do it. It’s tough getting one at-bat here and there, a start here and there.”

“I got an opportunity to go out there and make adjustments. I haven’t necessarily done anything different than what I’ve done in the past. I’m not a guy who toots my own horn or anything. In the minor leagues I played everyday, and this is what I did. I can play. It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity, and I’m thankful I got one this year.”

That’s true for Harrison from a stats perspective. He had a career .856 OPS in Triple-A, while getting everyday playing time. He had a .648 OPS in 2011-13 as a bench player in the majors. Now he’s got an .837 OPS as a starter this season. He’s even drawing MVP consideration, although he insists that’s not on his mind.

“Personal things are fun, but that’s not really what I focus on,” Harrison said. “I’m more excited about tomorrow, the Wild Card game and playing in the playoffs. That’s one thing about our team. I don’t really get the feel from anybody that anything is personal. You’ve got a guy here (Andrew McCutchen) that’s running for the MVP, and not once has he mentioned the MVP. You’ve got [Russell Martin], who has played outstanding. And all they talk about is the playoffs.”

Together, Harrison and Mercer have combined for a 6.9 WAR at shortstop and third base — only counting Harrison’s games at third base and disregarding his numbers while playing other positions. That 6.9 WAR ranks third in the NL, behind Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond in Washington (10.7) and Matt Carpenter and Jhonny Peralta in St. Louis (9.2).

When you look at the second half numbers, Mercer and Harrison are right with those two. They combined for a 4.4 WAR in the second half, while Rendon/Desmond were at 4.7 and Carpenter/Peralta were at 3.6. Harrison finished first in the NL in third base WAR in the second half (3.0), while Mercer finished third in the NL in shortstop WAR in the second half (1.4). If you want to point to one big change that led to the Pirates reaching the playoffs, fueled by their .582 winning percentage in the second half, it would be the improvements that Mercer and Harrison brought to the left-side of the infield, both offensively and defensively.

  • Surprise – Pedro Alvarez was credited with +7.6 FRAA at 3B by Baseball Prospectus. Harrison was +5.3 FRAA overall.

    • I think that is a product of Baseball Prospectus dislike of zone based fielding data. They claim to adjust for the ground ball tendencies of pitchers, but the Pirates are a bit of an outlier in that regard, so Alvarez may be benefiting from his additional opportunities, just a guess, or maybe they handled errors differently.

      UZR and DRS have Pedro as -28 and -29 fielding runs for his career, FRAA has him as +20. A metric shouldn’t be evaluated based on one case, but I would ask if Alvarez is rated well as a fielder why was he removed from the position?

  • Wasn’t surprised by Mercer’s hitting, I knew he could hit. I still don’t understand what happened to Pedro’s throwing though!

    • Simply a “head-case” sort of thing. It’s not like he was carrying the club with his bat either! After last year’s playoffs we all had a sense that Pedro had maybe broken through the fog and was going to become a fairly reliable power bat in the middle of the order. I actually think fixing his throwing may be easier to fix than getting him to become a much better consistent offensive force.

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