Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna Jr., J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Justin Turner, Bryce Harper and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – some of the biggest names in baseball – are still looking up at him roughly four weeks into the season. 

Yermin Mercedes, an unheralded rookie with the Chicago White Sox, leads the majors with a .429 batting average.

Involved in professional baseball for a decade, the 28-year-old Dominican’s long road to the big leagues has been a story of perseverance and determination.

But now that he’s here, can he sustain it?

The Long Road to the Majors

Looking back, few could have anticipated Mercedes’ historic start.

After signing with the Washington Nationals as an 18-year-old international free agent in 2011, he bounced between the Nats, Baltimore Orioles, Dominican league and independent league before the White Sox took him in the 2017 minor league Rule 5 draft.

Mercedes did show some pop in his last season in the minors, hitting a combined 23 homers between two teams at the Triple-A level in 2019. 

Those exploits earned an invitation to the White Sox’s alternate site last year and Mercedes made his MLB debut with an at-bat during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign in August. And he hasn’t looked back since earning a spot on Chicago’s 26-man Opening Day roster late in spring training.  

Playing for a team that has eye on its first World Series title since 2005, Mercedes provided a spark right off the bat when he joined Washington’s Cecil Travis (1933) as the only players in the modern era to have five hits in their first career start. He then became the first player since at least 1900 to begin a season with eight straight hits.

Mercedes didn’t stop there, going 15 for 27 (.556) with two home runs, three doubles and seven RBIs over his first six games. Along the way, he crushed a 485-foot homer against the Kansas City Royals that marked the franchise’s longest regular-season home run in the Statcast era (2015).  Only Luis Robert’s 487-foot blast in last season’s playoffs went farther. 

But Mercedes is also showing some all-around skill at the plate. Heading into Tuesday’s games, Mercedes was ninth in the majors in contact+ (measures the ability to make contact) at 114.0, 16th in raw value+ (measures overall performance during the course of an at-bat) at 170.1 and 27th in BIP+ (measures the damage done after contact) at 169.4. The league average for each category is 100. 

“I just want to cry every time when I see I’m in the majors right now. I just want to cry because it’s a long time,” Mercedes said. “I’ve got a big history.

“It’s hard for me because just looking around, I’m like, ‘It’s real. I’m here.’ I know when it was a couple of years ago, I said, ‘What am I going to do? What’s going to happen with me?’ I just said, ‘God, when am I going to be in the majors? What do I need to do?’ Because all the time, all my years, I put up my numbers, do the best of myself.”

In Historic Company

Mercedes’ meteoric rise through the first month has netted him his own burger at Fabulous Freddies, which has honored the designated hitter by putting ‘The Yerminator’ on the menu.

The last rookie to win his league’s batting title (American League or National League) was Seattle Mariners great Ichiro Suzuki (.350) in 2001. Only two rookies have done that in the live-ball era (1920) with Tony Oliva (.323) of the Minnesota Twins being the other in 1964.

Yermin Mercedes hit chart

When it comes to hits, Mercedes has tallied 30 in 70 at-bats so far. The last rookie to lead his league (AL or NL) in hits in a season was also Ichiro, who topped the AL with 242 hits in 2001. Ichiro would break the live-ball era single-season hit record three years later when he finished with 262. 

Mercedes is the first player in the AL to have a .400-plus batting average and 15-plus RBIs over his first 20 career games since the RBI became an official stat in 1920. Jeff Francoeur of the Atlanta Braves was the only previous player to accomplish this in 2005 when he recorded a .406 average and 19 RBIs in a 20-game span.

Only Ichiro, who debuted in MLB at age 27, managed more hits through 20 career games in the expansion era (since 1961) than Mercedes, who was also 27 when he made his debut. 

“A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have believed that I would be at this point right now,” Mercedes said. “I’m surprised. So I’m so excited about that. I never imagined I would be here. Now we’re here, keep going. Don’t put the head down. Just keep doing what I’m doing every day to keep it at that point.

“That’s great for me, I’m feeling great, feeling nice because I’m with my people, with my fans and with everybody. So I’m excited for that.”

While the season is still young, it feels like this is just the tip of the iceberg for Mercedes, who is seizing his opportunity after battling for years to get here.  

Enjoy the ride.

Research support provided by Sam Hovland.