It’s been mentioned quite often already, but it bears repeating that reigning Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year Matt Mervis just finished up his first season as a full-time hitter since the Cubs won the World Series. He was a high school senior in 2016, after which he started out as a pitcher with the Duke Blue Devils before seeing his senior season cut short by COVID. When you consider how little experience he’s had at the plate, relatively speaking, it’s amazing Mervis was able to do what he did.
“I’ve always known I was a hitter,” Mervis shared during a hitting exhibition with Marquee Sports Network’s Cliff Floyd. “I got 10 at-bats my first 2 years at Duke. I was consistently behind guys that were entering pro ball at the same time that I was.
“I got a good amount of at-bats in summer ball in college my junior year and then senior year was COVID so a shortened season there. And no at-bats almost that year. Had some ground to make up. My first year in pro ball got cut short cause of COVID. Last year was the first full season I played as a hitter pretty much since high school.”
After grounding a pair of offerings up the middle with Floyd serving up front toss, Mervis shot a ball the other way.
“That’s what I wanna do right there,” Mervis said when asked what he worked on in these drills. “That low line drive to left-center.”
The slugger went on to explain his stance, which is slightly open to allow him to get into his back hip more readily. One potential issue with that, and this is something Mervis admitted to struggling with at times, is the tendency to “dive” into the plate and close the hips. Among other problems, it’s easy to see how that could leave a hitter susceptible to inside pitches.
It also means running into trouble when facing left-handed pitchers, something Mervis is working hard to avoid.
“[I] open up the upper body, just so I can see the release angle a little bit better,” Mash explained. “Nothing with my hips or feet or anything, just try to…If this is normal for righties (displays more closed shoulder position), I just kinda open up just so I have a little better line of sight.”
Floyd, also a left-handed hitter, commented that he was almost the opposite and would try to stay closed because he had a tendency to open up too much.
“At the beginning of the year I would try to stay closed because a lot of lefties were going away,” Mervis said. “And I would keep my shoulder in and just try to fight it to left-center. And then when guys realized I was doing that, they made the adjustment to go hard in with the fastball and then soft away.
“So if I stayed closed here, I could never get to that inside pitch. So I just opened up a little and it let me start pulling left-handed fastballs.”
Gee, it’s almost like the concerns over his purported bat-speed issues might really have been about him needing to make some of those little adjustments. For all the talk of his ability to crush majestic homers, Mervis is a very cerebral hitter who’s been able to improve more as a result of his approach than just his raw power. He’s also got an excellent eye at the plate and he’s up there hunting for pitches middle-out.
Mervis explained that he likes being able to get extended on those balls to drive them into the opposite gap, after which Floyd asked how he reacts when pitches start to come back inside.
“How often are they gonna locate this pitch without leaving it out over the plate or missing in?” Mervis questioned while pointing at the very inside corner. “If I have no strikes on me, you can have that 6 pitch (referencing a spot on the pitch location mat lying in front of the plate)…
“I’m a pull guy, but I pull everything from here over,” Mervis said, indicating basically the entire plate. “I don’t lose power if it’s at the 1 or 2 (outside corner to just off the plate). I just get out, get extended, and pull it.”
As he’s said many times when asked over and over about his tremendous 2022 season, Mervis shared again that he found a groove about three weeks in and just rode that the rest of the way. His pregame routine was a matter of getting back to that feeling and maintaining confidence, which he wasn’t able to do as well during his first pro season.
After dominating every level of the minors and the Arizona Fall League last year, Mervis now faces new challenges between big league camp and competing for Team Israel in the WBC. They’ve got a tough draw in a region that features the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, but I’ve got a feeling Mash is going to live up to his nickname as the lights get brighter.
I’m the first to admit I’m biased in my opinion of this guy, and it’s not just because we’re sort of business partners at this point. Every once in a while, there’s a Cubs prospect who I really gravitate toward for one reason or another. They’re usually pitchers — Scott Effross, Max Bain, Ethan Roberts — which puts Mervis on a bit of an island as a hitter.
Every indication so far is that he’ll open the season back at Triple-A Iowa, so I’m really hoping he makes like Anthony Rizzo in 2012 and gives the Cubs no choice but to call him up by July.