Listen, we can all be adults here. We all understand what’s going on, in that none of us understand what’s going on. The Cleveland Indians are a few hours away from playing Game 5 of the ALCS, a game that could advance them to the World Series, and they’ll be handing the ball to Ryan Merritt in the first inning. Ryan Merritt, a 24-year-old who’s faced all of 37 batters in his major-league career, which began with a mop-up relief appearance against the Texas Rangers back in May of this year. Ryan Merritt, a lefty whose fastball sits at 87 mph and tops out at 90. Ryan Merritt, who has never appeared within the top 10 of an Indians prospects list.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some Ryan Merritt expert. Who is? About 48 hours ago, I knew as much about Ryan Merritt as the rest of you. What follows is simply a collection of more or less public information compiled from data, film, and scouting reports. Let’s get to know Ryan Merritt.
The biographical information is always a good place to start. The Indians selected Merritt in the 16th round of the 2011 draft. That’s not a very high round! He was picked 488th overall. He doesn’t have a particularly imposing frame, at 6-foot-0, 180 pounds, though BaseballAmerica’s 2015 scouting report calls it an “athletic frame.” He cracked Double-A last year, and pitched well, to the tune of a 3.51 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 141 innings. In 143 Triple-A innings this year, he ran a 3.70 ERA and 3.82 FIP.
Merritt made his debut in May, as earlier mentioned, and his career MLB numbers have been excellent, in a minuscule sample of 11.2 innings. In those innings: six hits, two earned runs, six strikeouts, zero walks, more than half of balls in play on the ground. Now, of course, in that small a sample, those numbers mean almost nothing, but it’s better than coming up and getting bombed. “The numbers don’t stand out,” Kiley McDaniel said in his 2015 scouting report on Merritt, “but he’s the low-walk rate, pitch-to-contact, ground-ball type that will put up similar numbers at every level and sneak up on people.” Ryan Merritt has shown he can hold his own against major-league hitting for at least 11.2 innings. He’ll be asked to throw five or so today.
Merritt’s strongest pitch is his changeup. “His changeup is his best offering, while his curveball needs work to become more of a weapon,” said Baseball America in their 2016 scouting report of Merritt. McDaniel called it an “above average” pitch. MLBPipeline, who ranked Merritt 29th out of 30 Indians prospects before the season, put a 55 on the pitch. At 87-90, the fastball, obviously, grades out as below-average based on raw stuff, but plays up to average due to what MLBPipeline grades as 60 command. “He stands out most for his command and feel for the zone,” BA said in 2015, adding the next year that “he showed in 2015 that he can retire more advanced hitters.”
To gain a sense of where Merritt’s stuff might fall, within the context of major-league pitchers, I employed the pitch comp exercise popularized by Jeff Sullivan a couple years back, in which velocity, horizontal movement, vertical movement, and spin rate are used to create a “similarity score” for individual pitches among same-handed pitchers. First, the fastball:
|Player||Tm||Th||Num||Velo||H Mov||V Mov||Spin||Similarity Score|
The movement is average. The velocity, well below. The defining characteristic of Merritt’s fastball is its absurdly low spin rate of 1,904 revolutions per minute, which was fourth-lowest among 139 left-handed pitchers who threw at least 50 fastballs this year. This is not the kind of fastball you want to leave up in the zone. This is a pitch with weight that you keep down to get grounders. This is the kind of fastball thrown by guys like Kyle Lobstein and Jerry Blevins.
The changeup comps are more encouraging:
|Player||Tm||Th||Num||Velo||H Mov||V Mov||Spin||Similarity Score|
The changeup shown by Merritt this year is a near match for the changeup thrown by Dallas Keuchel, and Keuchel throws a fine changeup. The inclusion of Chen ought to be encouraging, too. Of course, these are changeups in isolation, and we all know changeups play off the fastball, and the velocity and movement differentials between Merritt’s changeup and fastball admittedly haven’t been great. Still, the inclusion of some quality pitchers in this second table is more encouraging than the group of names in the first, and paired with the scouting reports, one is led to believe the change could be a decent pitch.
Merritt’s only career start came against the Royals a few weeks ago, on September 30. He threw five innings, allowing one run on three hits while striking out four. Fine start! Pretty decimated Royals lineup. Not much to play for. Nonetheless, let’s watch him strike out Eric Hosmer.
There is, perhaps, some deception in his delivery. It’s a bit unorthodox, and he hides the ball well. He’s very twitchy, both in his motion, and definitely between pitches. In this clip, his pants look ill-fitting. This first-pitch changeup misses low, but not far from catcher Roberto Perez’s target.
He comes back with another changeup — which indicates a certain level of confidence in the pitch that he’s willing to throw it to a same-handed hitter, behind in the count, for a second consecutive offering — and although he misses his spot inside a bit, it’s still over the plate for a called strike to even the count.
Cutter, nailed the glove, but just a hair outside.
Changeup, nailed the glove, for a swinging strike two.
Fastball, nailed the glove, for a swinging strike three.
You certainly see the command. You certainly see some funk to the delivery. You certainly see the well below-average stuff, albeit with some weight to the pitches.
The task at hand for Merritt is the Toronto Blue Jays, and that’s a lot to ask. As for the rationale behind the move, Merritt was chosen over Mike Clevinger, mostly because he’s more stretched out, and the Indians have asked a lot of their bullpen, and ideally, Merritt could get them five or so innings. It seems highly unlikely he’ll face any Blue Jays batter a third time, particularly with Jose Bautista now leading off.
He’s probably going to throw a pitch like this at some point…
… and if it’s Jose Bautista (rather than Drew Butera) facing 87 middle-middle for the third time, well, he probably won’t get Drew Butera’s result.
While the right-handed-heavy, power-hitting Blue Jays lineup might look like a great matchup against a soft-tossing lefty, there’s two potential caveats. One, the Blue Jays actually hit better against righties (104 wRC+) than against lefties (102 wRC+) this year. Probably just noise, could be something, but it wasn’t a lefty-killing unit this year. And then also, unlike the Indians, Blue Jays hitters love their velocity.
Toronto’s production against left-handed fastball types, by velocity
- Above-average velocity (93+): .432 SLG (11th)
- Below-average velocity (<93): .458 SLG (24th)
When it came to soft-tossing lefties, Blue Jays batters slugged among the bottom of the league. Make of that what you will. The Indians have been pounding the Blue Jays with a steady diet of slow, offspeed and breaking stuff, and so maybe Cleveland feels Merritt matches up well. Who knows?
Probably not. Probably, this isn’t going to go well for Cleveland. Merritt is an inexperienced, non-prospect, soft-tossing, lefty starter who profiles as a back-end, strike-throwing innings-eater, at best. He throws Kyle Lobstein’s fastball. The Blue Jays can hit. The odds are clearly against Cleveland. Odds are just odds, and they’ve been against the Indians throughout the playoffs, but this is their tallest order yet.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.