'He's a big leaguer, man': Padres taking notice of Merrill's learning curve

June 10th, 2024

This story was excerpted from AJ Cassavell’s Padres Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SAN DIEGO -- The veteran outfielders on his right and his left had already been pulled from the Padres’ 13-1 victory over the Diamondbacks on Saturday when 's eyes lit up. Eugenio Suárez laced a sharp line drive into the left-center-field gap, and in that moment, the scoreboard didn’t matter.

“There's no time when you're on that field,” Merrill would later say, “to let off the gas.”

The Padres’ rookie center fielder got the jump he needed, covering 85 feet in 4.4 seconds before laying out to make an excellent diving grab. The play had a catch probability of only 20 percent, according to Statcast. In the grand scheme, it didn’t count for much. But…

“It's not really a close game, but he's playing it, regardless of the circumstance,” said Padres manager Mike Shildt. “That's what a winning player does. He goes out in that ninth inning and makes a highlight level play. That's what really exceptional players do. They're always on point. Jackson's always on point.”

Two and a half months into his big league career, the Padres have come to expect that from Merrill. A 21-year-old rookie who is mature beyond his years, Merrill doesn’t give away at-bats. He’s a threat on the bases. He’s been better than anyone could have reasonably expected in center field.

“He’s a baller,” said Fernando Tatis Jr. “He’s proven himself to be a big leaguer. He’s battling, just like every other guy in this clubhouse. But he’s definitely learned how to make adjustments. He’s taking care of himself the right way. He’s played a great center field for us, which has been huge. I’m proud to be his teammate.”

That’s not to say everything has come easily. The Padres handed their starting center-field job to a then-20-year-old who had never played center before. Naturally, there was a learning curve.

The point is: Merrill embraced that learning curve. He’s played 65 of the team’s 69 games, posting a wholly respectable .272/.309/.355 slash line. There’s reason to believe those numbers should be higher, too, based on the quality of his contact.

Merrill’s expected batting average is .301. His expected slugging percentage is .472. Digging a little further, Merrill is doing plenty of good things at the plate without the results to show for them. Consider these parameters: balls hit 95 mph or harder with a launch angle between 5 and 30 degrees. That’s a recipe for success, and Merrill has 45 of those this season -- tied for 25th in the Majors. On those particular batted balls, Merrill’s batting average (.533) is 130 points lower than his expected batting average (.663).

Which is a long way of saying: He’s hitting lots of hard line drives to the outfield -- a very good thing! But he’s not getting the results to show for it. On Sunday, I began explaining some of these details to Merrill, before he nodded and summed it up quicker than I could.

“Yeah,” he said, “we’re getting robbed, that’s just straight up.” Except he used a more colorful word than “robbed.”

I think that’s a telling response from Merrill. There wasn’t any bitterness in it. He’s merely telling it like it is. Merrill has hit into some bad luck (as evidenced by Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s remarkable over-the-shoulder catch on Sunday). At times earlier this year, Merrill admitted to getting more caught up in the results than the process. That led to his slumps.

“When I do line out and I'm hitting the ball good, and it's not going my way, I kind of tried to force stuff,” Merrill said. “I need to not think, ‘I need to change this.’ Nah, keep the same approach. The balls will start falling. I've learned that by now. I don't really get upset about it anymore.

“But it is annoying.”

Let’s just say that’s a lesson plenty of grizzled veterans struggle with.

“He’s just a big leaguer, man,” Tatis said. “He knows how to manage himself.”

Through the ups and downs, Merrill has entrenched himself in the Padres’ starting lineup, mostly hitting seventh lately. He’s manned center field without looking like a novice. He’s regularly turning in quality at-bats, with decent results to show for it. But mostly, Merrill has flown under the radar this year.

“Not by us,” Shildt said. “Maybe peripherally outside of our clubhouse. But it's not getting overlooked by me and his teammates and our staff. He's just done a nice job of taking what the game gives him, making adjustments when he has to and staying within himself, trusting his ability. Which he clearly has a lot of.”