Matt Mervis tries to avoid looking at his numbers. No one would blame him, though, if he wants to take a peek.
Mervis’ meteoric rise through the Chicago Cubs farm system this year has the left-handed slugger on the cusp of Major League Baseball.
Mervis, 24, hit his way to Triple-A Iowa after beginning the year at High-A South Bend.
In 106 games across three levels, Mervis is hitting .303 while producing a .362 on-base percentage and .939 OPS. Mervis’ 60 extra-base hits — 34 doubles, two triples and 24 home runs — are third-most in minor-league baseball.
“I couldn’t imagine this all happening in one year, but honestly this is what I expected over my minor-league career,” Mervis recently told the Tribune. “It’s definitely been a different path, but I think I’ve settled in pretty well at every level because this is where I’ve always seen myself and beyond.
“I‘m pretty tough on myself — nothing’s ever good enough — but I’m definitely happy with how the season’s going.”
Mervis’ path to the organization required the Cubs’ best recruiting efforts.
In their 2020 predraft meetings, the Cubs graded Mervis as a fourth-to-sixth-round pick in a normal draft year. The pandemic reduced the draft from 40 rounds to just five, causing a lot of talented players to go undrafted. The Cubs anticipated all 30 teams would pursue signing Mervis to an undrafted free-agent contract if he wasn’t selected by the end of the fifth round.
Mervis frequently talked to Justin Stone, the Cubs’ director of hitting, leading up to the draft. Stone reached out to Mervis early on the morning of the first day teams could contact undrafted players and outlined a comprehensive development plan specifically tailored to him. Stone and the Cubs identified “low-hanging fruit” to work on Mervis’ swing. The Cubs’ recent history of developing homegrown hitters also appealed to Mervis, who felt confident the Cubs were the right fit.
Stone distinctly remembers how the Cubs approached their free-agent pitch to Mervis.
“If this were an SEC school and we had to recruit a blue-chip prospect, how do we go about doing it?” Stone told the Tribune. “We took some of those college recruiting steps, and one was being extremely thorough. If he was a player for us right now, what would his player plan look like?”
When evaluating Mervis’ time at Duke, featuring limited at-bats as a two-way player, the Cubs saw his bat sometimes could get very rotational: the barrel would enter and exit the zone to the pull side quicker than it should, which centers on a player’s deceleration capability. Addressing that aspect of his swing has been a part of Mervis’ development plan since joining the organization.
Said Stone: “This means being able to not only turn really fast to create high at speed and exit at velocity, but being able to put on the brakes really fast and keep the bat going forward in the zone versus off 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 pop.
“There was a lot of intriguing things of we have a power bat on the corner that could potentially move to the system fairly quickly,” Stone said. “And you’re talking about an asset there in the UDFA process that in a normal draft year would have been worth a lot more financially.”
Mervis’ debut season in 2021 didn’t meet his expectations at Low-A Myrtle Beach. Mervis, rated the Cubs’ No. 20 prospect by Baseball America and No. 21 by MLB.com, did not want to put any expectations on himself entering this season.
A large part of his 2022 success stems from putting the ball in play. At Triple-A Iowa, Mervis is striking out at a 13.8% rate. If he had enough Triple A plate appearances to qualify, Mervis’ whiff rate would be among the lowest. But even with the smaller sample size at Iowa (109 plate appearances), Mervis’ low K% puts him in the top 10% among hitters at Triple-A affiliates.
“Oh, I hate striking out,” Mervis said. “Nothing makes me more angry than striking out. I feel I have pretty good bat control, a pretty good feel for the barrel and pairing that with when I get two strikes to not letting a pitcher strike me out. I feel like a lot of that is physical, but some of it is mental.”
Some small swing changes have helped Mervis bounce back from 2021, which Stone considers an anomaly. Mervis focused on staying shorter to the ball by keeping more compact and balanced in his swing instead of trying to always hit for power. Mervis previously had not adopted an all-power approach in high school or at Duke, instead taking pride in being a hitter first and letting the power come naturally.
But the dynamic that led the Cubs to signing him in 2020 became out of whack at Myrtle Beach.
“I spent so much time during the season thinking about mechanics and if something didn’t work one at-bat or one game then I tried to figure something out the next game and it just kind of handcuffed me over the whole season,” Mervis said. “This year I’m allowing myself to trust my mechanics I’ve worked on before the game and then really trying to see the ball and react.”
Mervis didn’t produce outlandish power numbers at Duke, but more consistent contact has yielded more balls in play this season.
“He’s one of those really good stories in the minors and it’s fun to see him keep hitting,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last month. “Hopefully he keeps hitting all the way up here.”
Keeping it simple when stepping into the batter’s box is a phrase often heard in baseball, and Mervis embodies this approach: “I don’t have one. Try to get a pitch over the plate that I can hit and I try to hit it hard.”
Mervis’ adjustments were quickly tested his first three weeks at High-A South Bend, where he opened the season. He struggled, hitting .250 with a .277 on-base percentage, 10 strikeouts and two walks through 12 games.
But he committed to trusting his approach and kept the mechanical aspects of his swing out of his mind. Once the weather started to warm up and his swing began feeling better during pregame work, Mervis’ production took off.
“He’s swinging at really good pitches to hit and he’s not missing,” vice president of player development Jared Banner told the Tribune. “You don’t find guys hitting for power like that without striking out, so we’re really excited about that. And he’s a competitor, that’s the thing that jumps out. He wants to learn, he wants to get better and he’s always working.”
Mervis initially stood out during the Cubs’ abbreviated instructional league in the 2020 offseason, prompting Stone to call him arguably their best hitter among the group.
“So we had a snapshot of like, ‘Oh man, this is different, this guy has a chance,’ and the Myrtle Beach year wasn’t really who that was,” Stone said. “For him to come out and do what he did this year, that’s kind of what we saw in the draft year and instructs, this is what he did on a regular basis.
“I’m just super happy for him that he righted the ship and started to surface as the player that we thought potentially he could be.”
Mervis’ confidence stood out to the Cubs even during the UDFA process. The player development process helps assist players through the mental and physical parts of the game, and the Cubs know what boxes they need to help Mervis check for him to reach his big-league goals.
“The fact that he’s arguably one of the top five hitters in all of minor-league baseball, that’s super exciting for him,” Stone said. “He’s going to be in a conversation at the end of the year when you are talking about what this guy’s future is going to be with us. And that’s a different conversation than what it was a year ago.”
The Cubs likely will wait until 2023 to give Mervis a big-league opportunity. He profiles as a first baseman/designated hitter and is not eligible for the Rule 5 draft in the offseason, meaning the organization can wait a little longer to put him on the 40-man roster.
But Mervis appears ready for the next challenge.
“I hope there’s one more level in my future this year,” he said.