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Merrifield, His Walks and History

Whit Merrifield does not take a walk.

He has taken a free pass just 20 times in 436 plate appearances so far this season: just a 4.6 percentwalk rate. Among qualified batters, only 14 players in the majors have walked at a lesser rate than Whit. Two of those 14 are Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar, who leads the league in walking the least. It is a bit interesting that a whole bunch of middle infielders are in the bottom 15, including the likes of Rougned Odor, Didi Gregorius, Dee Gordon, Brandon Phillps and Jose Iglesias. Mike Moustakas, by the way, is 18th in least walks with a 4.8 percent rate. Of the 18 players who have walk rates under 5.0 percent, Merrifield’s .331 on-base percentage ranks third.

Information like that is enough to give one reason for pause. Certainly you have seen it about social media. Any rejoicing over something Merrifield has done is almost inevitably followed by either “yeah, but he’s 28″ or “sure, but he doesn’t walk.”  Merrifield’s WARP is 2.9, his fWAR is 2.8 and his bWAR is 3.7. Don’t cotton to those fancy metrics in your America? Well, Whit has slashed .295/.331/.483. Even more traditional? How about 14 home runs and 20 steals from your second baseman?

But he doesn’t walk.

While Merrifield did post walk rates of 6.2 percent or above in eight of his ten minor league stops, he only reached double digits in this category once (four seasons ago in AA). There is likely some logic in thinking that Merrifield might walk more with more major league time, but it might not happen (his walk rate is lower than in his rookie 2016 campaign) and Whit will certainly never be a player who walks a lot or, probably, even on a league average rate.

That said, do we just toss 2017 up to good fortune, juiced balls and the grace of the baseball gods and resign ourselves to the fact that next season Whit Merrifield will not be worth three wins above replacement and maybe not be any better than replacement level himself? One could point to an old friend of Royals fans, Angel Berroa, who hit .287/.338/.451 in 2003 at a suspected age of 25 and was right on the edge of awful from 2004 forward. However, one could also point to the fact that Whit’s numbers are up across the board in 2017 despite a fairly average .311 BABIP, which is fifty points lower than his 2016 mark.

But he doesn’t walk and that is a legitimate concern.

Hitting .295 as of last night, Merrifield still has just a .331 on-base percentage. That is 98th among all qualified batters in baseball. It’s not bad, particularly coming from a middle infielder with some speed and, at least this season, some pop. I think you can all do the math, however, and realize that if Whit is a .270 hitter next year (he carried a career .274 batting average in the minors), his on-base percentage is not going to enthuse anyone. Just a bit of bad hitting luck and Whit could go from leading off to Omaha (or worse) in a hurry.

I turned toward history to take a gander at players who appeared in at least 120 games in a season, posted a .330 or better on-base percentage and walked 30 times or less – numbers that Merrifield is likely to be at or around by season’s end. The search returned 539 instances of that happening and a ton of fun names. It has happened 190 times since 1990, which is – by very rough calculations – equates to about four percent of all batters who appeared in at least 120 games. Bottom line, it happens regularly, but not a lot.

Fun names? How about Nap Lajoie, who walked just 24 times in 1901 on his way to a .426/.463/.643 line. There is nothing relevant to Merrifield, but I thought it was important to note that a season like that was out there. Joe DiMaggio matched our criteria at age 21 while Roberto Clemente did so at age 36. You can lose yourself in this list (as you can with most) as notable players from all eras have, at one time or another, walked little and gotten on base at a plus .330 clip. Tony Oliva is there, so too is Kirby Puckett, Elston Howard, Hal McRae, Jim Rice and on and on.

I am sure many of you already knew, but George ‘High Pockets’ Kelly made the list in 1922. Kelly, who is in the Hall of Fame, would later be traded for Pea Ridge Day. Relevance? None, but any time you can type High Pockets and Pea Ridge, you have to do it. 1922 also saw Bing Miller and Hack Miller reach the same search criteria. The latter was known to swing a FORTY-SEVEN ounce bat while the former would play until the age of 42. Hack made our list the following season as well, while Bing would be on the list five times.

Ichiro Suzuki matched our criteria twice, albeit 15 years apart. Clemente did the same thing, making the list at age 21 and 36.  Felipe and Matty Alou combined to make the list five times. Six is the most times a player made this particular (peculiar?) list. Stuffy McInnis did it, so did George Burns. ‘Stuffy’ by the way, was sort of the early 20th century equivalent of ‘toolsy.’

Old friend Willie Wilson is on the list three times. Ken Harvey is there in his ‘All-Star’ season, while Mark Grudzielanek made the list four times with four different teams. Jim Eisenreich made it three times with three teams. Alcides Escobar is on the list, which surprised me in that he managed to get on-base at a plus .330 clip for an entire season. Billy Burns made the list for the A’s in 2015 while Lorenzo Cain did it for the Royals in 2014.

As we emerge from the rabbit hole, we return back to a search for relevance. The Royals, who will be a vastly different looking team in 2018, will be looking for Merrifield to repeat or even build upon this 2017 campaign. Can we find some recent players who have shown the ability to get on-base at a decent clip (as .330 is not exactly an eye-popping OBP) despite their lack of interest int he base on balls?

Starling Marte pops up right away. In three of the last four seasons, he has walked less than 30 times, but posted on-base percentages of .337 or greater. Marte walked just 33 times in the one season of the four he did not make our list. Brian Harper did it for the Twins in four out of five seasons from 1989 to 1993 and posted a .328 OBP the one season he missed the list. Placido Polanco made our list twice and he is an interesting and ‘hopeful’ comparison.

Four times, Polanco posted on-base percentages north of .330 while posting walk rates of less than 5 percent. In five additional seasons, Polanco surpassed the .330 mark with walk rates between 5 percent and 6 percent. While Placido Polanco comparisons may not get you all tingly, he was a middle infielder whose career slash line is .297/.343/.397 over a fifteen season major league run. All that was accomplished with a very modest 5.4 percent walk rate.

One other quasi-viable data point. As mentioned above, Lorenzo Cain made the list in his age 28 season of 2014, walking just 24 times in 133 games (.339 OBP). Cain has since seen his walk rate move from 4.8 percent to 6.1 percent to 7.1 percent to his current 2017 mark of 8.5 percent. Certainly Whit Merrifield is not the defender that Cain is, but if he could manage to do something similar with his walks over the next few seasons, it would do a great deal to keep him a viable member of the everyday lineup. For what it is worth, Lorenzo posted a 7.3 percent walk rate in his final season in AAA while Merrifield’s was 7.2 percent the last time he spent any real time in Omaha.

To be quite honest, in less time than I spent on this, you can find a long list of ‘low-walk’ guys who managed to cobble together one or even two productive seasons before their luck ran out. That fact is undeniable, but it also not an inevitable result either. If Merrifield’s BABIP was sailing along at Paulo Orlando-esque .380, then I would be first on board the ‘Merrifield cannot repeat this’ train, but it is not. His production has increased while his BABIP has decreased, and that provides some hope that Whit may be more Lorenzo Cain than Angel Berroa or, if not Cain, at least Placido Polanco.

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