Pirates new everyday shortstop learning angles, routes from predecessor
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The first little hint that he was going to be someone special was dropped two springs ago, when Clint Hurdle sought out a reporter who was having a tough time with names at Spring Training. This reporter had written "Alex Sanchez" for Alex Presley and had even referred to Pirates icon Steve Blass as "Bill Blass."
He got passes on those goofs. However, Hurdle made a point of straightening out the reporter on one specific player: "Hey, it's Jordy Mercer, not Jody."
It is not only Jordy, but Jordy Joe Mercer. And if there is a template for baseball nicknames, Jordy Joe has to be on it. It's not Shoeless Joe or Joltin' Joe, but close enough.
After two years of formulaic internship, Mercer has arrived at shortstop for the Pirates. In 2012, Mercer spent about four months with the Bucs and played 140 innings. In 2013, Mercer's presence grew to 103 games and included weeks-long stretches as the everyday shortstop.
All along, he was getting schooled by his own Mr. Miyagi, Clint Barmes.
And now Mercer is ready to go to the mat under the watchful eyes of Barmes, who signed back on with the Pirates to be the understudy of his former pupil.
We always hear about the cyclical nature of baseball, how stories, and jobs, get passed on from one generation to the next. But seldom is it so textbook.
"Working with Jordy has been great," Barmes said. "There's never been a moment of thinking, 'I've got your job' or 'You've got my job.' He's definitely earned every opportunity he is getting."
Having Barmes in his corner, both figuratively and literally, since their lockers are in the same nook of the McKechnie Field clubhouse, is smoothing the transition, Mercer knows.
"I'm so glad he is back," Mercer said. "It just makes my life so much easier, having somebody that I can talk to, ask a question of, learn from. He's been there and done it, so I'm just trying to follow him."
They are both cut from the same defensive and physical cloth, Mercer standing a couple of inches taller. They have similar limitations, if you will, needing to compensate for range and arm strength with positioning and approach.
"Jordy has a similar skill set on the defensive side as Barmes. He has learned a lot by watching Clint play," Hurdle said, breaking it down. "They've got to be good at angles -- and that's probably the biggest thing that Barmes has helped Jordy with -- and taking proper routes to groundballs. The ability to throw on the run, to backhand the ball across the body … all of that comes into play.
"They spent the entire season together last year. It's been a work in progress. On days Jordy did play, Barmes has been there to offer advice -- when asked."
They are not, however, clones. Mercer brings the legitimate dimension of an offensive threat; his .285 average last season was bettered by only two National League shortstops who played 100-plus games, Troy Tulowitzki and Jean Segura. He showed up this spring visibly strengthened around the shoulders and about 10 pounds bulkier, making reasonable the expectation of providing more power.
On the other side, Barmes is reputed as elite defensively; he doesn't own a Gold Glove, but after his first season in Pittsburgh, earned a GIBBY nomination for Top Defensive Player of 2012.
"It's gonna take Jordy some time," Hurdle said of inheriting that reputation along with the job. "You've got to get games under your belt and start making plays."
Neil Walker, having spent considerable time across from both men on the other side of the second-base bag, is uniquely qualified to compare them.
"The biggest difference," Walker said, "is arm strength. Clint has to make a lot of plays on the move, because his arm isn't as strong as a lot of people's. But he's one of the best I've ever seen at making that throw on the run. Jordy can plant and throw across the infield with some zip on the ball.
"All three of us have worked very closely together. Having Clint back is great; he's a big asset for us, and everybody was excited to get him back."
When Barmes says Mercer has earned the opportunity, he isn't kidding. Mercer plays between two No. 1 Draft choices -- Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez -- and can look over his shoulder to see another, Andrew McCutchen. Mercer himself was a third-round pick in 2008, which came with a taller ladder.
To fully climb it took him six years. But he has reached the top, and has no plans of making it a short stop.