Matt Mervis tries not to look at his numbers. No one will blame him, however, if he wants to take a look.
Mervis’ meteoric rise through the Chicago Cubs farm system this year has the left-handed hitter at the top of Major League Baseball.
Mervis, 24, went to Triple-A Iowa after starting the year at High-A South Bend.
In 106 games across three levels, Mervis is hitting .303 while producing a .362 slugging percentage and a .939 OPS. Mervis’ 60 extra-base hits — 34 doubles, 2 triples and 24 home runs — rank third in minor league baseball.
“I couldn’t imagine all of this happening in one year, but honestly, it’s what I expected from my minor league career,” Mervis told the Tribune recently. “It’s definitely been a different path, but I think I’ve settled in pretty well at all levels because that’s where I’ve always seen myself going.
“I’m pretty hard on myself – nothing is ever good enough – but I’m definitely happy with how the season is going.”
Mervis’ path into the organization required the Cubs to make a maximum recruiting effort.
In their 2020 pre-draft meetings, the Cubs rated Mervis as a fourth- to sixth-round pick in a regular draft year. The pandemic shortened the draft from 40 rounds to five, leaving many talented players undrafted. The Cubs assumed all 30 teams would continue to sign Mervis to an undrafted free agent contract if he was not selected before the end of the fifth round.
Before the draft, Mervis spoke frequently with Justin Stone, the Cubs’ hitting director. Stone contacted Mervis early in the morning on the first day teams could contact undrafted players and laid out a comprehensive development plan tailored specifically for him. Stone and Cubs identified “low-hanging fruit” to work on Mervis’ swing. The Cubs’ recent history of developing homegrown hitters also appealed to Mervis, who was confident the Cubs were the right fit.
Stone clearly remembers the Cubs approaching Mervis as a free agent.
“If this was an SEC school and we needed to recruit a high prospect, how would we do it?” Stone told the Tribune. “We made some college recruiting moves, and one of them was very thorough. If he was a player for us right now, what would his player plan look like?”
Judging by the time Mervis spent at Duke, showing limited at-bats as a two-way player, the Cubs saw that his bat could spin a lot at times, with the barrel coming in and out of the zone on the pull side faster than needed, center on opportunities slowing down the player. Addressing this aspect of his hesitation has been part of Mervis’ development plan since joining the organization.
Said Stone, “That means being able to not only turn very quickly to create high speed and get off speed, but to be able to brake very quickly and keep the bat forward in the zone, not to the side.”
Stone compared Mervis’ hitter profile to Anthony Rizzo — similar exit velocities, ability to make contact and a good decision maker with some popularity.
“There were a lot of intriguing things about the fact that we have a power bat at the corner who can potentially move into the system pretty quickly,” Stone said. “And you’re talking about assets in the UDFA process that in a normal draft year would be worth a lot more financially.”
Mervis’ debut season in 2021 didn’t live up to his expectations at Low-A Myrtle Beach. Mervis, rated the Cubs No. 20 by Baseball America and No. 21 by MLB.comdidn’t want to put any expectations on myself this season.
Much of his success in 2022 comes from putting the ball in play. At Triple-A Iowa, Mervis is hitting 13.8%. Had he had enough triple plate appearances to qualify, Mervis’ odor level would have been one of the lowest. But even with Iowa’s smaller sample size (109 plate appearances), Mervis’ low K% puts him in the top 10% of hitters in Triple-A affiliates.
“Oh, I hate to strike out,” Mervis said. “Nothing makes me angrier than a strikeout. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the bat, a pretty good feel for the barrel and combine that with getting two strikes to keep the pitcher from striking me out. I feel like a lot of it is physical, but some of it is mental.”
Some small changes helped Mervis recover from 2021, which Stone considers an anomaly. Mervis focused on staying shorter to the ball, keeping more compactness and balance in his swing, instead of trying to always hit for power. Previously, Mervis didn’t follow an all-powerful approach in high school or at Duke, instead priding himself on being the first hitter and letting the power come naturally.
But the dynamic that led the Cubs to sign him in 2020 broke down in Myrtle Beach.
“I spent so much time during the season thinking about mechanics, and if something wasn’t working in one at-bat or one game, I was trying to figure something out in the next game, and it just handcuffed me throughout the season.” Mervis said. “This year, I’m letting myself trust my mechanics that I’ve been working on before the game and then really trying to see the ball and react.”
At Duke, Mervis hasn’t shown amazing numbers of power, but more consistent contact has brought more balls in play this season.
“He’s one of those really good stories in the minors, and it’s good to see him continue to hit,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last month. “Hopefully he’ll keep hitting all the way.”
In baseball, the phrase “keep it simple when you step into the batter’s box” is often heard, and Mervis epitomizes that approach: “I don’t have one. Try to get a step over the plate that I can hit, and I try to hit it hard.”
Mervis’ adjustments were quickly tested in the first three weeks at High-A South Bend, where he opened the season. He struggled, hitting .250 with a .277 slugging percentage, 10 strikeouts and two walks in 12 games.
But he committed to trusting his approach and not thinking about the mechanical aspects of his swing. Once the weather started to warm and his swing started to feel better during pregame work, Mervis’ production took off.
“He takes really good shots and he doesn’t miss,” vice president of player development Jared Banner told the Tribune. “You don’t find guys that hit for power like that without striking out, so we’re really excited about that. And he is a competitor, that’s what jumps out. He wants to learn, he wants to become better and he always works.”
Mervis initially stood out during the Cubs’ shortened instructional league in the 2020 offseason, prompting Stone to name him as perhaps the best hitter in the group.
“So we had a shot of like, ‘Oh man, this is different, this guy has a chance,’ and the year in Myrtle Beach wasn’t really what it was,” Stone said. “For him to come out and do what he’s done this year, that’s what we’ve seen in his draft year and that’s what he’s done on a regular basis.
“I’m just really happy for him that he’s righted the ship and started to resurface as the player we thought he could be.”
Mervis’ confidence was highlighted by the Cubs even during the UDFA process. The player development process helps players get through the mental and physical parts of the game, and the Cubs know what boxes they need to help Mervis check to reach his goals in the big leagues.
“The fact that he’s maybe one of the top five hitters in all of minor league baseball is very exciting for him,” Stone said. “He’s going to be part of the conversation at the end of the year when you’re talking about what this guy’s future is going to be with us. And it’s a different conversation than it was a year ago.”
The Cubs will likely wait until 2023 to give Mervis a major league opportunity. He projects as a first baseman/designated hitter and is ineligible for the Rule 5 draft this offseason, meaning the organization may have to wait a little longer to add him to the 40-man roster.
But Mervis seems ready for the next challenge.
“I’m hoping there’s another level in my future this year,” he said.