At each of Michael Mercado’s games with Westview High in San Diego, his father, David, sits down the right field line.
There’s a hill behind the visitor’s bullpen, and above that hill is a strip mall that includes a Subway shop. In that Subway parking lot, beside a few bushes and far away from the pop of whizzing 95 mph Michael Mercado fastballs, is where David watches every home game.
Further away than anyone else.
But after games, when his son is raking the visitor’s bullpen, David will walk down the hill and talk about his start. Westview pitching coach Pat Edwards had seen this exchange happen over and over again, but he never knew what the father and son talked about. So, after one of these meetings he caught Michael as he was walking back across the field and asked.
It wasn’t about his fastball velocity—now touching mid-90s with projection left—or his command—impeccable, with four different pitches—or the number of strikeouts he managed. Instead, they talked about what Michael was thinking with runners on first and second with nobody out. About how he was handling the adversity of the situation. About what was going through his mind.
David doesn’t talk to Michael about Xs and Os, or mechanics or anything like that.
“I really think that’s why (Michael’s development) has worked so well,” Edwards said. “This kid has just continued to get better and better and better. Because the parents have never been the ones that have said, hey, we’re going to push you to all these (showcase) events and all this other stuff.
“They’ve kind of trusted the process and, boy, has it really worked.”
That process is about to pay off, as Michael is one of the fastest-rising players in the 2017 draft class. He’s currently the No. 47 prospect in the class. He’s got above-average control of a four-pitch mix that includes a low-90s four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball with late life, a true curveball that he can manipulate the shape of, and a cutter thrown off the side of his four-seam grip, which has slider movement.
According to Edwards, he also has a circle change that he’s got feel for. He just hasn’t needed to use it much.
Add in the projection that comes with a lanky 6-foot-5 high schooler with extremely clean mechanics, and Mercado might be drafted high enough that he never sets foot on Stanford’s campus, where he is committed.
All of this started when Mercado’s parents, David and Shelley, both former collegiate tennis players, decided they weren’t going to hover over him for every step of his life and his baseball career.
“They were very unique in that his dad basically put him in my hands,” Edwards said. “To this day I’ve never had a discussion with (David) about mechanics or anything else like that. We have probably 100-105 kids in our program and I’ve never been around a family that they just have that good perspective on the process . . . And you get some people who are trying to re-live their childhood through their kids, and this family is just so much different than that.”
It wasn’t just Michael’s parents, though. Even his head coach at Westview, Beau Champoux, has stood aside and let Edwards—who trained current Pirates righthander Trevor Williams—work his magic.
“I just didn’t want to get in the way,” Champoux said. “Sometimes when you have some talent, you let your coaches coach and you let your players play.”
Edwards first got his hands on Mercado when he was around 11 years old. Right away, he knew there was something special about him. He was tall and athletic, and he already had a clean arm action.
“He’s probably what you would consider a low three-quarter arm slot,” Edwards said. “He’s great getting balanced, he’s super smooth, he’s got a little bit of a coil to him when he gets to his balance point. He’s really on time with the hand separation. I think most important right now is when his stride foot is striking, he has great hip-shoulder separation. He’s phenomenal when the stride foot strikes: the hips have started to already clear, the front shoulder is closed and he’s fantastic rotationally. And he’s going to get better.”
Mercado starting working in Edwards’ program, which uses a lot of weighted ball training and focuses more on development than getting in front of scouts in showcases at every opportunity. Today, it’s a hodgepodge of pitching knowledge that comes from former Arizona State pitching coach Ken Knutson—currently an instructor in the Indians organization—a few drills in proprioception taken from Driveline Baseball (a data-driven baseball training, consulting and research lab), and a wealth of additional information that Edwards comes across in his own research.
“I tried to combine the weight training that (Driveline is) doing, plus our weighted ball routine, plus rest throughout different periods of the year,” said Edwards, who has helped Westview build its own indoor pitching lab, complete with pads, resistance bands and weighted balls, among other equipment. “It’s basically an annual cycle that we’re going through. . . We started Mike on the weighted ball routine when he was a freshman. And we will manipulate the program itself, based on what they like and what they don’t like.
“I give a lot of leeway with the kids to say, ‘Hey, do you like this? Do you not like this?’ And that’s actually, now, how we’re going about our daily work. Based on the stuff that they think is working for them, stuff that’s not working for them. And so we’ve kind of thrown it against the wall and see what sticks, and then modified it over time.”
That specialized pitching program has led to one of the more unique pregame routines you’ll see. If he’s starting at 3:30 p.m., Mercado will start jogging around 2:30. After that he’ll stretch, do plyometrics and then work with a shoulder tube to activate his shoulder capsule. Next are drops with a 32-ounce ball, reverse throws and overhead work with a medicine ball.
Only at that point will Mercado start throwing, which starts with long toss, typically around 3 p.m., a little bit of flat-ground bullpen work, then up on the mound to warm up for 10-12 minutes, and then it’s game time.
That routine before games, and the half-dozen years of training with Edwards has allowed Mercado to take steps forward each and every year at Westview. And it’s not just about the physical aspects—those X’s and O’s that were never talked about with his father—it’s the mental side, as well.
“Being able to go up there and attack guys and really feel confident with my abilities is something that has really helped me,” Mercado said. “Because the stuff has always been there, it’s just having the confidence to really throw anything in any kind of count against any kind of hitter. So I feel like this year especially my confidence is kind of through the roof right now.
“And that’s a large part due to—obviously coach Patrick—and me working hard and my scout ball coaches.”
That work has turned Mercado into one of the most interesting prep pitchers in the entire class, and perhaps the best player to ever come through Westview.
“Hands down he’s obviously the most talented kid that’s come through here,” Champoux said. “We’ve had kids come out of here who’ve played DI baseball, we’ve had kids who have played professional baseball. But when you see a kid who has the potential to play in the big leagues and be there for a while, you kind of know it.
“And this is something I talk to Michael about and I tell our team about. Take time to stop and smell the roses and kind of look around and take it in and enjoy it. Because it’s special. It doesn’t happen that often.”
“He’s special, man,” Edwards said, “he’s really special. I had a buddy of mine that scouts for (a National League team). He said to me, ‘Dude, he’s going to win a Cy Young some year.’
“He’s the real deal.”