Everything a rookie learned in the minor leagues about baseball gets shaken, stirred and turned upside down once he gets to the big time. It’s one thing to be able to play the game, it’s quite another to be able to stay and play it at the highest level.
Rookies Zach Plesac and Oscar Mercado made the big leagues this year with the Indians. So far they’ve done a decent job of sticking around.
But it is critical for a rookie to have a safe haven, something he can almost always rely on during the game. We’re not talk super powers, just a baseball thing. Something to stabilize the game when things are teetering on the brink.
With Plesac, it’s his pickoff move. With Mercado, it’s his speed.
Plesac’s last start was not his best. In a 13-0 loss to the last-place Orioles on Saturday, he allowed seven runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings. Before the game turned sideways, Plesac retired the Orioles in order in the first. One of those outs was a pickoff of leadoff hitter Jonathan Villar at first base.
It was Plesac’s fourth pickoff, tying him for the MLB lead with Blake Snell and Matthew Boyd. Snell and Boyd are lefties, which makes a pickoff move — especially to first — a lot easier because the pitcher is looking right at the baserunner. Plesac is a right-hander, which means his back is to first base.
“When we brought him up I was texting with Dan (Plesac, Zach’s uncle) just because I played with him," said manager Terry Francona. "In one of the texts he said, ‘He’s got the quickest feet I’ve ever seen.' I didn’t give it a thought. Part of it was because he was his uncle.
“But he does. He has the quickest feet I’ve ever seen."
Quick feet lead to frozen baserunners and pickoffs.
“His feet are so quick, it’s a weapon,” said Francona. “If you get too far off, he’s going to pick you off. It’s been short career so far for him, but when he gets experience, and guys want to run and they take that jab step the wrong way, he’s going to pick them off."
Plesac didn’t just pull his pickoff move out of the air.
“I’ve always had it,” he said. “It hasn’t been as efficient as it is now. It’s something that’s got me out of jams and saved me some pitches."
He said it comes down to observation and timing.
“It’s all about reading guys’ steps and timing,” he said. “I just mix up the timing. Sometimes you see guys get bigger leads after one or two picks (throws) over to first. Then you just vary the timing. If you can hold them at that longer distance, that’s how you usually get them.”
While Plesac’s move may be something new to the rest of the AL, it’s become an anticipated event in the Tribe’s dugout.
On June 23, Detroit’s JaCoby Jones singled off Plesac to start the third inning at Progressive Field. Bench coach Brad Mills leaned over and told Francona, “He is not going to make it through this at-bat.” Before Plesac threw one pitch to the next batter, Nick Castellanos, he picked off Jones at first.
The pickoff move is a subtle skill. There is nothing subtle about Mercado’s speed. It’s what jumped out at anyone who saw him hit .400 in spring training and it’s been evident since he was promoted to the big leagues on May 14.
“Speed is my whole game,” said Mercado in spring training. “Whether it’s in the outfield or running the bases. I feel it’s a way for me to change the game at any given time."
It was not a great weekend in Baltimore for the Indians, but Mercado’s speed was on display. Friday night he went back to the center field fence, jumped and stole a home run for Chance Sisco. It was the Tribe’s best moment in a 13-0 loss.
On Sunday, following yet another 13-0 loss Saturday, Mercado used his speed to double twice, score two runs and beat out an infield single. Mercado’s doubles each came with two out and brought All-Star first baseman Carlos Santana to the plate. Santana singled him home both times in the 2-0 victory.
“I always run hard out of the box,” he said. “I understand who is hitting behind me.”
Mercado’s first double came in third. It was worm-burner to center field. Off the bat it didn’t look like a double, but Mercado’s speed turned it into one.
“I liked that,” Francona said. “When you go hard out of the box, you give yourself a chance. And he made if fairly easy. I thought that was really good base running.”
Mercado is hitting .314 (48-for-153) with 11 doubles, one triple, four homers and 17 RBI. He’s scored 28 runs in 39 games and stolen six bases in eight attempts.
Plesac is 3-3 with a 3.61 ERA in seven starts.
So far, so good for both of them.