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Whit’s Happening

In a little less than a season and a half’s worth of games, Whit Merrifield has been worth 3.4 WARP, or about 2.4 WARP per 162 games. That dog will most certainly hunt in a lineup. He’s been one of the more pleasant surprises over the last two seasons when there haven’t been as many pleasant surprises as we’d hoped. What’s crazy about Merrifield, as you surely know, is that he’s progressed rapidly in his short time as a big leaguer.

In his 2016 debut, he hit .283/.323/.392 with a .253 TAv and was worth 1.1 WARP in exactly half a season’s worth of work. You might notice a lack of power there. He produced 27 extra base hits, with only two of them coming as home runs. There was more reason to be skeptical about his big league future. He had a .361 BABIP, which was a decent sign he was lucky, though not as lucky as some might believe.

For one thing, he had a soft contact percentage of just 12 percent, which is crazy good. He also has good speed and hit the ball on the ground a lot, so it would stand to reason that with hitting the ball hard and hitting fewer fly balls that he might have a higher than normal BABIP. Even with that, luck played into it and with little power to speak of, he likely wouldn’t be able to continue as a big league regular with that profile.

So he changed. Maybe change isn’t the right word, but rather adjusted his approach as he gained comfort. His fly ball percentage jumped from 29.8 percent to 40.5 percent. His ground ball percentage fell from 44.7 to 37.7. He hit the ball softer more often and hard less often, but his average exit velocity remained the same and he was driving the ball much more. The results were obvious. He hit .288/.324/.460 with 32 doubles, six triples and 19 home runs. His 57 extra base hits were tied for second on the team behind Mike Moustakas.

I mentioned gaining comfort, and I say that because his allergy to fly balls in the big leagues was different than what he had shown in the minors for the past few seasons. He’d had a fly ball percentage better than 43 percent in two of the previous three years in Double-A and Triple-A and only missed it in 2015 after slumping when he didn’t get the call he expected after Alex Gordon’s groin injury. I almost wonder if he changed his approach a bit when he got to the big leagues simply because of what either he thought he was supposed to be or what the team conveyed to him he was supposed to be. The argument to that is he went the other way far more in the minors, but I wonder if some of that was going on.

Is Whit for real, though?

On one hand, he’s going to be 29 and theoretically in his prime. On the other hand, he’s going to be 29 and only entering his second full big league season. The guys who succeed with that sort of profile tend to either be foreign players who spent the first few years of their career in another country and are anomalies. Merrifield may very well be one of those anomalies, though not a star.

Think about Merrifield in a different way. In another world, after hitting .278/.366/.463 in Double-A in 2014 and .340/.373/.474 in Triple-A, he gets a call to the Royals at age 25. Maybe he struggles, maybe he doesn’t, but is he a long-term fixture then if he does exactly what he’s done these last two seasons? I know that’s revisionist history here, but if the Royals hadn’t committed four years to Omar Infante and were still trotting out Chris Getz, I think Merrifield very well would have gotten to the big leagues earlier. As a ninth round pick just four years prior, I know I’d have been intrigued. You’d be lying if you said you wouldn’t either. The difference between Merrifield making to the big leagues at 25 and becoming a regular at 28 is likely both the beginning of a bad contract and a successful team. It’s hard to fault him for that.

But at the same time, that didn’t happen. He didn’t reach the big leagues until he turned 27. That’s not all bad for the Royals. Getting prime talent during the pre-arbitration years is a big plus. I think Merrifield has staying power in the big leagues because of his ability to adjust and work ethic, but also because there’s legitimate talent there. He had the 24th highest sprint speed in baseball last season, ahead of guys like Peter Bourjos, Jarrod Dyson and, yes, Mike Trout. So he can run. We already talked about his fly balls and his ability to turn on balls. And he can play a competent second base.

But there are some concerns. On the Royals, it goes less noticed because some of the other super free swingers, but he swung at about one-third of all pitches outside the zone in 2017. His strikeout rate still dropped significantly due to increasing his contact on those pitches by seven percent, but he doesn’t have a great grasp of the strike zone. I also worry about him defensively at second base, especially with an inexperienced shortstop across the way in Raul Mondesi. I think if Eric Hosmer signs elsewhere, that actually could help Whit at second if they have a first baseman with more range to his right, but that’s a bit of a concern for me too.

Even so, I think with the adjustments Merrifield made for the 2017 season and the skills he brings to the table, he’s going to be a nice cog on the next few Royals teams. He’s not a star, but he’s pretty good. You could probably make an argument that if the Royals aren’t going to be competing that he should be traded given his expected value on the field and on the payroll. Whatever the Royals decide to do, I’m confident they’ve found a piece in Merrifield that can help them win games moving forward.

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