CINCINNATI — Off to the best start of his career, Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer laid the foundation months before the season started.
It’s due as much to Mercer’s confidence and comfort levels going into spring training as anything he did in the batter’s box or in the field.
“Spring training really helped me out,” Mercer said. “This was kind of the first time I didn’t have to fight for a position. I was able to work on some things, see some pitches and do some different things.
“It was a different spring training for me, and I think it’s leading into the season, as well.”
On opening day, Mercer had an RBI double. He collected two hits in the next game, including a walk-off single in the 11th inning.
Mercer finished April with a .318 batting average, an .806 on-base plus slugging and 13 RBIs. In the first month of the season last year, he hit .197 with a .472 OPS and four RBIs. He began this season with a career average of .193 in April.
“The (batting) part of it has been his challenge,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Jordy wanted to get something done. He put the work in, changed his routine.”
Mercer didn’t make dramatic changes to his swing mechanics or position in the box. Instead, he concentrated on subtleties, such as letting the ball travel deeper into the hitting zone and focusing on better pitches to hit.
Over 18 Grapefruit League games, Mercer batted .275. It wasn’t as gaudy as the .333 average he put up the previous spring, but Mercer felt he had accomplished more than he did a year ago.
Second baseman Josh Harrison, who last year signed a multi-year contract after spending a couple of seasons as a utility man, knows the difference job security can make.
“It helps a lot,” Harrison said. “Knowing for sure he’s our shortstop, he knows there’s nothing he has to prove. For some guys, that can take a little pressure off and allow them to play more free.”
Mercer’s progress at the plate stirred Hurdle to insert him in the leadoff spot against left-handed pitchers. He has been productive lower in the lineup, too, with 13 RBIs in the first 30 games. At that rate, he’ll zoom past his career-best season total of 55 by the end of August.
Mercer continues to work on his defense, too. Hurdle said his eyes are telling him Mercer seems to have better range this year, even if stat sheets sometimes suggest otherwise.
“He’s not a guy who blows up defensive metrics,” Hurdle said. “I think it’s his freedom to play that’s increased. His freedom and confidence to play is enabling him to get to those balls now, where before it was more mechanical.
“Early on, there was a little bit of a governor that he didn’t want to make a mistake, so he was methodical.”
The Pirates’ extensive use of defensive shifts has helped Mercer’s development.
“It’s knowing where to be, knowing the hitter, knowing the pitcher,” Mercer said. “I’m in better spots to get to those balls. The ones I would just barely miss before, now I’m getting to them and making a play on them.”
As a rookie in 2012, Mercer played in just 42 games. He spent much of that season taking cues from veteran shortstop Clint Barmes.
“It was a mentoring situation for him,” Hurdle said. “Barmes was so giving with his time and free with advice that it helped build a real solid foundation. Now, it’s all Jordy. He’s taken it upon himself now to freestyle it with his personality and skill set. I believed all along it would play out that way.”
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.