Jays From the Couch presents a deep exploration of what the Blue Jays can expect from Julian Merryweather
On August 31st, just before the non-waiver trade deadline, the Blue Jays traded former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to the Cleveland baseball team in exchange for pitcher Julian Merryweather. While the trade was only confirmed this past week, due to Merryweather being on the 60-day DL, it was made clear soon after Donaldson was shipped to Cleveland that Merryweather would be coming back in return.
Upon the news, Jays fans went to Google and started learning about Merryweather. The main findings of those early searches were pretty pessimistic. Merryweather produced a 6.58 ERA in 16 starts for Cleveland’s AAA team in 2017, then missed all of 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. For some, a familiar narrative emerged: the Jays front office just gave away an MVP to their old buddies in Cleveland.
That, of course, is nonsense. Donaldson was a severely diminished trade piece, who still appeared to be hurt by the NWTDL, so getting a meaningful haul for him was never likely. [If you were on “team trade JD before 2018″—I was not—you earned a victory lap.] Instead of breeding yet another conspiracy theory about the front office’s allegiance to Cleveland, it’s a lot more useful to actually try to figure out what the Jays have in Julian Merryweather.
The first thing to consider is his Tommy John surgery. Back in 2013, a wide-ranging study was completed to examine Tommy John surgery, focusing on rates of return and effects on performance.
Merryweather’s procedure occurred in early March. If he returns to competition as quickly as the average pitcher in the study (20.5 months), he could find himself pitching in the 2019 Arizona Fall League, with a regular off-season ahead of him going into the 2020 season. That said, there is a range of possible return times, with 95% of pitchers returning 11 to 30 months after their surgery—putting his likely return anywhere from Spring Training 2019 to the tail end of the 2020 regular season. This is coming from a position of total ignorance, but I feel confident that Merryweather was not acquired without some assurances that his rehab is going smoothly and that a return at some point during the 2019 season is more likely than not (no guarantees with TJ, of course).
Importantly, the study found that, for the 83% of pitchers who returned to the majors, performance returned at least to previous levels. In cases where TJ followed an extended period of elbow issues, performance actually improved after the surgery.
With the injury concerns addressed and the associated risk accounted for, we can shift focus towards the scouting reports he received prior to his surgery. MLB Pipeline produced a thorough report on him at the end of the 2017 season in which they assigned Merryweather a 50 FV, a strong rating for a AAA prospect.
His main pitch is a fastball (60 FV) that “sits at 93-96 mph and at times touches higher, all the while working on a downhill plane”. His secondary pitches are a curveball (45 FV) and a changeup (50 FV). Control is a strength for him (55 FV). Importantly, given the Jays’ growing reputation as a club that can positively tinker with a player’s approach, “Merryweather showed improved strike-throwing ability last season after working with [Cleveland] to simplify his delivery”. While “he has the ingredients to start at the highest level…the right-hander’s power arm could make him an effective late-inning reliever”.
For a couple different reasons, FanGraphs did not include him on Cleveland’s top prospects list in either 2017 (due to a belief that his 2016 success was built on a weak foundation) or 2018 (due to his TJ surgery). Nevertheless, FanGraphs has had positive things to say about Merryweather.
A couple of months into the 2017 season, Eric Longenhagen acknowledged that he was wrong for leaving him off Cleveland’s list, saying that Merryweather was “deceptive, athletic, touched 95 several times, flashed a plus curveball and changeup, and despite some issues timing all the moving parts of his delivery, he threw lots of strikes. There are scouts who think he fits better in relief, but he has mid-rotation stuff”. Later, in his write-up on Cleveland’s 2018 top prospect list, Longenhagen noted that “Merryweather would have been in the main section of the list if not for requiring TJ this spring. He’s up to 98 with a plus curve and changeup”.
Clearly, prior to his surgery, he was viewed quite positively by some major evaluators. His fastball was strong and effective, with his secondary pitches reasonably polished. A consistent idea was that he had a solid shot of being a useful big-league starter, with “more-than-useful reliever” a likely outcome if starting didn’t pan out for him.
“But”, you may be exclaiming at me, “he had a 6.58 ERA in his first 16 starts at AAA! It is impossible for him to become a big-league pitcher!” Let’s dig into his stats a little to dispel that fiction.
Merryweather spent two seasons (2016-17) as a full-time starting pitcher, starting 2016 out at High-A, before promotions to Double-A and Triple-A. At each level, Merryweather has displayed strong signs of being a solid starting pitcher.
In 2016, at the High-A level, Merryweather produced very strong strikeout and walk rates, alongside a slightly better-than-average home run rate. Overall, he produced a very good 3.28 FIP, backed by an even stronger 2.98 xFIP.
After 11 High-A starts, Merryweather was promoted to Double-A, where he spent the second half of 2016 and the first half of 2017 (22 starts in total). His early 2016 successes continued into Double-A, where his strong strikeout, walk and home run rates contributed to his excellent FIP and xFIP.
Age-wise, Merryweather was older than most, but by no means an outlier at either level. In 2016, the average High-A pitcher with 10+ starts was about 22.5 years old, whereas Merryweather was 24.5 years old in spring 2016. About 21% of the starters in this group were in their age-24 season or older. As such, Merryweather would have been expected to dominate, which he did.
In 2016 and 2017, the average Double-A pitcher with 10+ starts was just under 24 years old. Merryweather started his Double-A career four months before his 25th birthday and ended it four months before his 26th birthday. About 38% of the starters in this group were Merryweather’s age or older.
After his May 2017 promotion to Triple-A, Merryweather continued to produce better-than-average strikeout and walk rates, supported by a strong ability to generate whiffs (10.8 SwStr%, 74th percentile). What failed him was his previously strong ability to avoid giving up long balls. As a result, he produced his worst FIP as a minor-leaguer. Moreover, a .388 BABIP meant that there were often runners on base when those dingers were hit, resulting in the aforementioned (and over-mentioned) 6.58 ERA.
However, some underlying statistics can help contextualize these numbers. Merryweather has always done a good job of generating ground balls and limiting fly balls. His time at Triple-A was no different—his 44.9% GB rate ranked in the 59th percentile, while his 33.6% FB rate ranked in the 62nd percentile. Giving up a lot more fly balls was not the problem.
Instead, the main issue was a surge in his home run-to-fly ball (HR/FB) ratio. After posting a 10.5% HR/FB at High-A (21st percentile) and a 7.4% HR/FB at Double-A (59th percentile), Merryweather gave up homers on 15.7% of fly balls at Triple-A (11th percentile). If we assume that Merryweather’s “true” Triple-A HR/FB is league average, then his strong 3.89 xFIP is a better indicator of his performance at Triple-A than his not-great 4.75 FIP.
Ultimately, a doubling of one’s HR/FB following a promotion from Double-A to Triple-A can generally mean one of two (very different) things. On the one hand, he may have given up more barrelled balls, due to being over-matched at the highest level before the majors. While that would be a very bad sign, further development could see him adjust and return to a fairly normal HR/FB.
On the other hand, he may have just been unlucky. HR/FB is a highly volatile statistic that bounces around a pitcher’s true HR/FB level. The graph below shows the 2017 and 2018 HR/FB of 106 starting pitchers with 70+ innings pitched each season. There appears to be no season-to-season correlation of one’s propensity to give up homers from fly balls. This makes it very plausible that the one specific factor that ruined Merryweather’s ERA—giving up a lot of home runs—was driven by luck—captured by his elevated HR/FB.
Given the front office’s use of minor-league batted ball data, which isn’t available to the public, I’m inclined to assume that they too believe that bad luck is closer to the truth than a sudden decline in performance. One can certainly imagine Ross Atkins seeing that Merryweather’s barrel rate didn’t change nearly as much as his HR/FB did, leading him to shrug off such concerns.
It’s also worth mentioning that Merryweather was drafted (in 2014) while Atkins and Mark Shapiro were still with Cleveland. While neither of them was necessarily responsible for scouting and drafting him, they both place great importance in knowing every prospect in their team’s system. As such, there’s a good chance that they like the intangibles he brings with him and his overall potential as a prospect.
It goes without saying that I would have preferred to write about the no-doubt potential of the prospect the Jays got in return for Josh Donaldson. But the narrative around Julian Merryweather has been unnecessarily negative in a lot of circles, focusing far too much on his Tommy John surgery and his small sample size Triple-A ERA. Like I said in a recent post on Russell Martin, it’s silly to evaluate a guy’s performance based on one (particularly meaningless) statistic—batting average in Martin’s case. Moreover, while there is still risk associated with Tommy John surgery, the Jays aren’t getting a guy who is probably never going to pitch again.
In the past, Merryweather has shown a highly consistent ability to strike batters out and limit walks, strengths that he carried into the Triple-A level. He generates more whiffs and grounders than most starting pitchers, while limiting fly balls as well.
Ultimately, two key questions can only be answered after he returns to action. One, can he recover the form he showed before his Tommy John surgery? Two, did that jump in HR/FB reflect bad luck or struggles against the best hitters outside of the major leagues? Only time will tell for certain, so let’s try not to write him off before he gets the chance to prove himself.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.