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Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Jared Jones authored another brilliant start on Monday night, striking out seven batters across six one-run innings in a win versus the Milwaukee Brewers. Fretting about award races in April is historically unwise and morally questionable, but it's fair to declare Jones the extremely early favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Will that remain so? Who knows.

Whether or not Jones can pull off the green-to-checkered feat, he's done the unthinkable by taking the focus away from other, more heralded youngsters. This was, to some extent, supposed to be the Jackson spring: the unveiling and then ascending of Baltimore Orioles second baseman Jackson Holliday, Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Jackson Chourio, and San Diego Padres center fielder Jackson Merrill.

The truth is that Holliday and Chourio were, of course, the better regarded prospects. Holliday entered the spring ranked by CBS Sports as the No. 1 youngster in the land; Chourio checked in at No. 7. Merrill, though no slouch at No. 12, was paired with them more because of a shared name than a shared outlook. And yet, through nearly a month, Merrill has been the most productive member of The Jackson Three.

Merrill, 21 as of this week, enters Tuesday batting .317/.378/.415 (128 OPS+) with a home run, four stolen bases, and nine runs driven in. He's started 23 of the Padres' 25 games in center field, and he's moved up from batting ninth in the order to batting seventh. That last bit may not seem like much, but it's been a month and the Padres have one of the better offenses in the majors, as judged by runs scored or wRC+.














It's to be seen if Merrill can continue to raise his stock and continue to set the pace for the Jacksons. At minimum, his early success provides us with a convenient framing to examine his game. With that in mind, here are three things you should know about Merrill and his hot start.

1. Athleticism is playing up

Merrill's athleticism is, in our estimation, the engine that powers his entire game. That's most apparent in how quickly and fluidly he moves. According to Statcast's data, he ranks in the 80th percentile in sprint speed. His average home-to-first time (4.24 seconds) puts him in company with the likes of Bryson Stott and Trea Turner -- two individuals who swiped a combined 61 bases over the course of the 2023 season.

We're going to touch on how Merrill's athleticism has enabled him to make a quick transition to center field later on in the piece. For now, we wanted to focus on how it's impacting his offensive game, both at the plate and on the basepaths. Based on that set-up, you might suspect the lefty-hitting Merrill has mastered the art of the drag or push bunt. If he has, he hasn't put it on display. He has, nevertheless, recorded seven infield hits. That represents more than a quarter of his total hits as of this writing.

Merrill gets down the line quick enough that infield batted balls become math equations. A chopper that hangs in the air? Hit. A grounder that requires a second baseman to make a backhanded stop and throw against their momentum? Hit. A grounder that requires a shortstop to slide? Hit. A grounder that a shortstop can't cleanly corral? Hit. An excuse-me swing against a shaded defense? Hit. A comebacker that gets deflected into no fielder's land? Hit, obviously.

There are an abundance of batted balls that may not appear impressive in any real manner, but that qualify as hit threats when they're coming off Merrill's bat. The fun doesn't stop there, either. Not by a long shot.

Merrill is also four for five on stolen-base attempts. He's picked his spots well, running on pitchers who were slow to the plate. In turn, a tag hasn't even been attempted on his four successes. As for the failure … well, nobody's perfect. It wasn't your conventional pickoff, however. Merrill executed a jump lead against San Francisco Giants right-hander Keaton Winn with just a few seconds left on the pitch clock. Winn was able to spin and make an accurate throw to first. Truthfully, the biggest factor was Merrill slipping on his attempted return. He was tagged out following a rundown.

We'll have to see if the Padres become more aggressive with Merrill's stolen-base attempts, or if they'll continue to pick their spots and trade off volume for efficiency.

Either way, Merrill's speed is playing a big part in his early success. For more evidence of that, consider the impact it's had on his defense. 

2. Quick learner in outfield

It's easy to overlook, but Merrill had never played center field in a regular season contest prior to this year. He received some light outfield duty late last summer, when it appeared the Padres might promote him into a super-utility role. But, even then, he was restricted to left field. The Padres gave him an audition in center this spring, and it seems fair to write that he exceeded expectations -- heck, he still is, in many ways. 

Defensive metrics are notoriously untrustworthy in small samples, but Merrill ranks in the 85th percentile in Outs Above Average on the young season. He certainly passes the eye test. He hasn't been perfect in center, but he's been pretty good for someone with limited experience. You probably saw the catch below on a Shohei Ohtani liner. What's arguably more impressive is that he's made all the plays he's supposed to make. Some of his routes are jagged, sure, but he doesn't look like a greenhand out there.

Again, the key to Merrill's glove has been his athleticism. Oftentimes, that gets flattened into a synonym for "range." Fair enough, we suppose. But in reality, the range is the sum, and the addends are Merrill's jumps and finishes that allow him to chase down this and that ball to the gap or to the track. So far, Merrill is covering about as many additional feet versus average as Byron Buxton. That's good company to keep. Paired with Fernando Tatis Jr., these Padres have two genuine ballhawks in the outfield.

Mind you, the Padres deserve some credit for Merrill's transition -- not just in giving him the opportunity, but having him play about six feet deeper than the average center fielder. Coming in on the ball is said to be a lot easier than going back. Merrill may or may not agree, but so far that's proven to be a successful formula for him.

3. Showing off sneaky pop

We'll wrap up our look at Merrill by confirming that his game -- particularly at the plate -- has met expectations. We don't mean from a results perspective, but from a process point of view. 

Indeed, Merrill enters Tuesday with an in-zone contact rate of 88.2%, putting him right in line with José Ramírez. Simultaneously, his overall contact rate (82.8%) is tied with Corbin Carroll. We bring up those stars in comparison to establish that those are good marks, and to set up this comment: stylistically, Merrill is more like Ramírez. Both are far more willing to swing, inside and outside, the zone than Carroll.

We do feel obligated to note that Merrill has shown more strength than his .098 ISO indicates. Nearly 49% of his batted balls have cleared the 95 mph exit velocity threshold. Additionally, his 108.8 mph maximum exit velocity puts him in company with Spencer Torkelson, Kyle Tucker, and Daulton Varsho. Petco Park isn't the friendliest place for a lefty to show off their pop, but there is some juice in Merrill's bat.

Even if Merrill's slugging output remains modest, he's atoning for it by making a lot of contact and taking his walks. Factor in his secondary skills -- his baserunning and fielding -- and you have the makings of a solid, well-rounded contributor.