In a dark season for the Royals, Whit Merrifield continues to shine bright

In case you haven’t been watching (and I don’t blame you one bit if that’s the case), it has been a disastrous season for the Kansas City Royals. A team that won the World Series just three short years ago now finds itself at the bottom of the MLB. Literally, the Royals are currently in a tie with the lowly Baltimore Orioles for the right to be the worst team in baseball at 34-79. Things have gotten so bad that a 7-11 stretch coming out of the All-Star break seems like something to be proud of, even if it does include a now six-game losing streak. Apparently losing stars such as Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer was just too big an obstacle for Kansas City to overcome. Okay, you get it: 2018 has not been kind to the Royals. Rather cruel, actually.

Despite the team’s overall lack of success on the field, second basemen/part-time center fielder/super utility man Whit Merrifield has continued to solidify himself as one of the better players at his position throughout the entire league. The 29-year-old is in just his third season of MLB ball, yet plays like a ten-year veteran – cool, calm, and collective. Although he won’t typically make jaw-dropping plays or mash a bunch of home runs, Merrifield is a very valuable ballplayer and lays it all on the line each and every time he steps onto the field. This is partially inspired by his quite extensive stay in the minor leagues. Through having to battle with players five-plus years his junior for a starting gig, early-season demotions to AAA, and trade rumors heating up this year, “Two-Hit Whit” has been his team’s best player in 2018. He’s also been an above-average second baseman for the better part of two years. How, though? Keep reading.

 

It all started in 2016. In exactly half a season of baseball, Merrifield hit .283. That number would have been tied for 11th among all qualified MLB second basemen had Merrifield recorded enough plate appearances. His low walk rate (which has improved but still isn’t where it should be) limited him to an on-base percentage of .323, which would have been 14th among 2B. Nonetheless, it was a good start for a player many didn’t expect to arrive on the scene and perform well.

Last year was Merrifield’s coming out party. In 145 games, the righty raised his batting average to .288 and his OBP to .324. These may seem like very minuscule increases, but they put Merrifield 7th and 13th, respectively, among MLB 2B. The major difference here is power. Merrifield’s 32 doubles (9th), 6 triples (2nd), 19 home runs (10th) and .460 slugging percentage (6th) all landed him in the top 10 at his position. An entire season of Whit at second base put the MLB on notice: he was here to stay.

2018 has been another successful season for Merrifield. His .304 BA is currently 4th among all 2B. Due to an increase in walks, his .371 OBP is good for 3rd. 31 doubles to this date: 2nd. Despite hitting just seven home runs thus far in the season (tied for 23rd), his slugging percentage of .430 lands him in the top 10 again. He isn’t a perfect hitter by any stretch of the imagination. Last season’s power surge appears to be a bit of a fluke. Merrifield’s walk rate still isn’t great. Still, ranking in the top 10 in multiple categories speaks for itself. Where he really sets himself apart, though, is on the basepaths.

 

Undeterred by playing just 81 games in 2016, Merrifield’s 8 stolen bases still ranked him 17th at his position. Legging out three triples gave the baseball world a taste of what was to come for the South Carolina product.

Not only did Merrifield manage to lead all second basemen in stolen bases a year ago with 34, but he ranked quite well among those at other positions, too. Here’s a list of American League players who swiped more bags than Merrifield in 2017:

 

 

Oh yeah, no one did. Finishing 11th in the MLB in triples was also another stat that put Merrifield’s speed and baserunning prowess on display. I know what you’re thinking: 2017 was a big power year for Whit, too. That fantasy came crashing back down to Earth this season, did this one follow suit?

Nope. Merrifield’s 25 stolen bases are 2nd among 2B and 5th among all MLB players this year. He has just one triple to his credit in 2018 but other than that, he’s more than proven that his most valuable asset might be his wheels. To this point, we’ve established that Merrifield is a solid-to-good hitter and a great-to-elite runner. You all know what the last third is: defense!

 

Defense can drive a player’s overall value as high as the sky. It can also make a player… well… unplayable. Luckily for Whit Merrifield, his defensive stats have been favorable since his 2016 debut.

He didn’t log enough innings at 2B to qualify for the fielding percentage leaderboard in year one, but Merrifield’s figure of .984 would have landed him 13th – tied with Ben Zobrist. He did qualify for defensive wins above replacement (dWAR), though. Slotted at 11th for his position in half a season of baseball, it appears that 2016 was a solid first year in all aspects for Merrifield.

A year ago, Merrifield settled into his role as the starting 2B for the Royals – and it showed. According to ESPN’s system, his dWAR (0.9) and range factor (4.51) were good for 3rd and 8th at second base. Although it is a very basic means of evaluating a player’s defensive abilities, it’s worth mentioning that Merrifield finished 11th among all 2B in fielding percentage in 2017. While FanGraphs wasn’t as high on him (13th in both UZR and defensive runs above average), Merrifield was a capable defender no matter how you slice it. More than capable in some eyes. For more information on UZR or any other FanGraphs metric, you can click here.

2018 has not only further validated the above case, but a new-and-improved one might be on the horizon if Merrifield continues to flash good range and an impressive glove. He’s soared up the leaderboards from the year before in nearly every stat:

Whit Merrifield’s Defense at 2B (2017 vs. 2018)
2017 rank 2018 rank
Fielding % 11 4
dWAR 3 6
Range Factor 8 6
UZR 13 6
DEF 13 7

 

A top-7 defender in all five of the above categories this season, Merrifield went from proving he’s a reliable defender at second base to showing he’s a good defender at the position. It’s no longer a question: it’s a fact. Did I forget to mention he’s can double as a good centerfielder?

Among players who’ve logged at least 100 innings patrolling CF this season, Merrifield ranks 10th in UZR/150 games as a second baseman. Let that sink in. Hard to believe, right? Not after watching plays like this one:

Or this one:

Merrifield’s speed and instincts allow him to play all over the diamond. An above-average defender at 2B and CF, he’s also logged innings at RF and 1B this season.

 

When Kansas City let Ben Zobrist leave via free agency following the club’s 2015 World Series triumph, it had no clue there was another ‘Benzo’ in the farm system, just waiting for his big break. As a ballplayer, Whitley David Merrifield is solid at almost everything, good at a lot of things, and even elite in certain aspects of the game. He can hit for a good average, steal bases with the best of them and is able to play good defense at two positions. If you need him to fill in at RF or 1B for a game or two, he can do that as well. Every team could use a player like Whit Merrifield: a Jack-of-all-trades who’s as good (if not better) a clubhouse presence as he is a baseball player. In what has been a complete trainwreck of a season for the Royals, Whit Merrifield remains as productive as ever.


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