The Miracle of Whit Merrifield

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Throughout his baseball career, Whit Merrifield has found that he has many homes. Rotating through essentially every position, he has established himself as a Ned Yost-style player, one that would be similar to Ben Zobrist. However, what he lacked that Ben Zobrist had was a world-class batter’s eye, and a professional level skill set. Thus, as a 9th round pick in 2010, Whit Merrifield did not seem like the potential all-star that Ben Zobrist was, but instead just an aged mid-level prospect who could maybe develop into a versatile contributor off of the bench of a major league organization.

Sadly enough for Merrifield, that seemed to be his absolute ceiling, and even that was being generous. Although he was a super-utility, he lacked power, and didn’t even really have a knack for getting on base. A mainstay for AAA Omaha, he played in 135 games all year, but only mustered a .265 with a .317 OBP. The OBP combined with a merely average slugging percentage to form a .681 OPS. With both his 27th birthday approaching and his AAA OPS lagging 40 points behind the MLB average, it seemed more likely that he would become a career minor-leaguer rather than even a professional bench player.

After taking an aggressive dietary plan in the offseason, Merrifield was able to put on 20 pounds, and in addition to his diverse skillset, was able to earn a non-roster invite to spring training. Despite his exclusion from the 40 man-roster, he was able to earn his way into consideration to be on the 25-man roster, potentially as that super utility 25th man.

Of course, the consideration did not lead to anything immediate, so he started the season in Omaha. Making progress on last season, he improved to hitting .278 with an .800 OPS before he was called up to the majors. At that point, something hit him, whether it be a sudden swing realization or simply a god-sent miracle, as he was able to dethrone Omar Infante with an incredible .333 BA and .833 OPS.

I say incredible not because these numbers are spectacular, as they are simply above average in the league, but instead how quickly he was able to produce them. Never having had a slash line that strong at any level of the minor league, his development has simply been borderline miraculous, as he is putting up his best stats at the highest level. Although a meteoric rise like this is somewhat shocking, what’s even more shocking is his potential to maintain these stats.

First, as a disclaimer, I must admit that he has gotten extremely lucky to this point in the season, as his BA on balls put in play sits at .400, or .100 points above the league average. On the other end of the spectrum, Kendrys Morales has gotten extremely unlucky with his BABIP sitting at .256, so as the season progresses both should work their way toward the .300 mark, thus lowering Merrifield’s BA and increasing Morales’.

However, what is promising for Merrifield is that his Hard Hit% puts him among the best on the Royals. Why Hard Hit% matters is that the exit velocity on a ball almost directly correlates to the success of that AB, with hard hit balls obviously being the most successful and soft hit balls being the least successful. However, hard hit balls are extremely successful, as when a ball is hard hit the batter's’ average sits around .700. However, when that batter hits a soft hit ball, his average drops all the way to .140. With the importance of hitting the ball hard established, Merrifield puts himself amongst the best of the franchise. At 36.1%, his Hard Hit% is the slightest bit behind Eric Hosmer(36.4%) and Salvador Perez(36.6%), but also just slightly ahead Kendrys Morales(35.9%)(note: players also within .5% of Merrifield include Miguel Cabrera, Nick Castellanos and Mark Trumbo). Although Merrifield’s extremely low launch rate is going to limit him from hitting HR’s like any of the other players listed, his Hard Hit% should allow him to keep his BA at a somewhat above average level. With this mostly offsetting his ridiculously high BABIP, he should regress, but still be able to finish the year around .290.

While I have primarily looked more at the short term this far, his long term offensive usefulness can hopefully be better understood through a comparison to Starling Marte. At a distant glance, both are around 6 feet tall, pretty thin, hit for occasional power, use speed as an asset, and can use their skills to help their teams defensively. However, after digesting hitting statistics, the two are very similar. Both possess Hard Hit percentages around 36%, both have roughly 48% of their batted balls become ground balls, and both have their fly ball percentages around 27%. Further, both are disproportionately ‘lucky’ when it comes to their batted balls, as both have BABIP’s over .400 so far this season. Marte has been able to sustain a high BABIP throughout his 5-year career, one that sits at .360, which may suggest that Merrifield has the ability to sustain a high BABIP. Further, these nearly identical ratios for the 2 translate to nearly identical seasons to this point, as Merrifield’s slash sits at .333/.350/.833 while Marte’s is .333/.374/.876.

With this comparison, we can hopefully expect Merrifield to maintain comparable stats to Marte. Obviously these ratios are through 30 games so they are still very apt to take a downturn, just as Trevor Story’s did after his ridiculous start to his respective career. However, as long as they remain mildly comparable, the Royals should be able to expect a Willie Bloomquist-style surprise and have a 2B who can consistently maintain a .275/.320/.710 line. Even at that line, it is a huge upgrade over Omar Infante, who was a below replacement-level batter and a replacement-level defender. With Merrifield in the long term, they may be able to expect a replacement-level batter with a decently above average defender.

However, at this point in the post, I am tired of applying logical approaches, so I am going to evaluate Whit Merrifield as if the last 30 games have been his normal playing style and then make ridiculous comparisons . Garnering a 1.6 bWAR over just 28 games, he has already passed Eric Hosmer on the team WAR standings and only trails Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain, both of whom have played 30-40 more games. If he had played at this pace in every game this season (which is not that unrealistic, considering Eric Hosmer has played every game), he would currently be leading the AL in bWAR. In the radical scenario that Merrifield was able to start the season and play all 162 games and put up this kind of production, he would finish the season at 9.3 WAR. Absurd comparisons include that to NL MVP Bryce Harper last year, who finished with 9.9 WAR, and also to Mike Trout, who has averaged 9.3 WAR per season over the last four years.

While the odds of the Royals finding Mike Trout-production in their 27th ranked prospect are rather abysmal, the Royals are still very lucky to stumble upon Merrifield. Even if he turns into a Willie Bloomquist-style player, he will still be a sufficient 2B for years to come, which is an incredible turnout for a prospect as lowly as he was. To be honest, I would still count the Royals as lucky even if Whit Merrifield dropped off the face of the planet now, as the production he has already provided has been a much-needed spark to their season.

Credit to Royals Review, Rustin Dodd, Baseball Reference, and Fangraphs for information/statistics.

Platinum Sombrero is a blogger at Platinum Sombrero. Go follow him on twitter @platsombro. I promise that some of you will enjoy it.




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