What's Wrong With Whit?
The Royals best player is suddenly a liability at the top of the lineup. What's going on?
The 2021 season started with Whit Merrifield about as hot as can be. He had three hits and a homer on Opening Day. Then he had two hits and a homer in the second game. He only had one hit and a double in the third game, but he had two hits, another homer and a walk in the fourth game. In all, he was hitting .500 with nine runs batted in and a 1.125 SLG through four games. Sure it’s only four games, but that’s a very impressive four-game stretch.
He was hitless the next day. But the bottom didn’t all fall out then. He had eight hits in 24 at bats over the next six games after that, but you could see something wasn’t quite there. The power that he flashed in that first weekend and a day was missing. But of course, it’s just six games. However, since those first four games, Merrifield has hit .224/.299/.301. Two-hit Whit has tallied more than one hit in a game twice in May. You don’t really even have to look at the “since (x date)” to know what kind of a season he’s having now.
His overall line is down to .250/.320/.378. He is showing additional patience at the plate from last year, but all three of those numbers would be the lowest of his career; the average by a lot. I wish I could remember where I read this, but someone somewhere mentioned that the altered ball might have a really negative impact on players like Merrifield because of the way it will travel. And that brings me to my first question of how much of what Merrifield is going through is bad luck. So let’s explore that.
Is it just bad luck?
Merrifield entered the 2021 season with a career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .336. League average tends to hover somewhere between .295 and .300. Last year was a little lower, but it might have ended up coming up with some more time. This year, Merrifield’s BABIP is .257. And if this was a few years ago, we could stop and say that he’s likely to get some balls to drop in and things will get better and we can call it a day. Thanks for stopping by.
But it’s not a few years ago. Nope. We have so much more we can look at to see what role luck is playing in Merrifield’s struggles at the top of the Royals lineup. You might recall that I wrote about Merrifield before the season and how he’s successful in spite of not hitting the ball hard. And, well, that’s continued this season.
His average exit velocity is 86.5 MPH. Not to pick on Nicky Lopez here and make him the example, but very few people hit the ball as softly as him and his average exit velocity is 87.1 MPH. Maximum exit velocity is something that exists as well and Merrifield has him beat there, but to say Merrifield doesn’t hit the ball hard is a bit of an understatement. A couple things stand out to me in that above graphic. One is that his sprint speed is in the 93rd percentile. Theoretically that should help with BABIP. Another is that he doesn’t swing and miss much at all. I’ll get to the latter in a bit, but the former has me a bit confused.
It stands to reason that a player who runs fast and hits the ball softly on the ground will buy himself some infield hits. Merrifield has a ground ball rate of 44.2 percent which isn’t insanely high, but it’s high enough. And he can run. And he hits the ball up the middle and to the pull side about 70 percent of the time. It seems to me that he should be getting some more infield hits at least. I don’t know why that’s not happening as much. Or maybe it is and things could be much worse. He does have nine infield hits. His previous career high is 21. So maybe the BABIP numbers are down, but he’s even lucky to be where he is.
Of course, we know that we can see what his expected batting average is and that’s .259, so really not too far off his actual number. His xSLG is .403, so he’s been a bit unlucky there. And his xOBP is .328. So there can be some correction for him, but outside of a lower BABIP than he could ever dream to post, he’s kind of come by his numbers honestly.
I have a sort of weird theory.
He Makes Too Much Contact
Merrifield has always been a player who puts the ball in play and doesn’t swing and miss very often. His career high for whiff percentage is 20 percent, back in his rookie year of 2016 and in a solid year for him in 2019. This season, he’s swinging and missing on 13.1 percent of swings. On the surface, it’s easy to see that and think it’s a positive. Swinging and missing can literally never lead to a hit while putting the bat on the ball can. And for a guy with a career .336 BABIP before this season, you’d think that he’d get a hit about a third of the time he puts the bat on the ball.
But not all contact is created equal. I think about what hitters should be swinging at more than someone without a stake in it probably should, but such is my life. Plate discipline isn’t just taking balls and swinging at strikes but rather taking the balls and swinging at good strikes that hitters can inflict damage on. And pitchers are pitching Merrifield around the edges, many of which are pitches that a lot of hitters can’t do much damage on. Sure, there’s the occasional pitch in the middle and down that he can whack into the outfield, but 25.5 percent of the pitches he’s seen are on the edges in or out.
That’s 178 total pitches. He’s swung at 95 of them (53.4 percent). He’s missed 11 of them. He’s hit .200 with a .307 SLG on those pitches. Of the 84 he’s made contact with, he’s fouled 40 of those pitches off, which is better than weak contact at least. And on the 44 of the remaining pitches he’s made contact with, he’s hit .262 with a .405 SLG. Now, I sort of get why he’s trying to do damage on these pitches. Last year, he hit .357 with a .600 SLG on pitches on either edge. But maybe he actually swung through more of the pitches that he couldn’t do damage on last season. His whiff rate was higher though by about six percentage points, which is significant.
And now let’s talk about something a little more basic. It seems like when hitters struggle, it’s because they expand the zone quite a bit. Except Merrifield isn’t doing that. His chase rate of 26.3 percent is the lowest of his career. But wait. His chase contact percentage is also the highest of his career. The sample is small because he’s laying off the bad pitches, but it stands to reason to me that if you chase pitches you shouldn’t be chasing, you would have a hard time doing much damage on them unless you’re a guy like Salvador Perez, who is an anomaly.
This makes me think that Merrifield needs to alter his approach a little bit. It happens as players get older. In baseball terms, he’s no spring chicken at 32 years old. Boy I have to say that gets harder to stomach once you actually get older than most of the players. I think there’s just a chance he’s not quick enough to do damage on pitches that are in and off the plate like he has in the past. And you can see that on pitches over the heart of the plate, he’s still hitting just fine with a .316 average and .500 SLG. That’s right in line with his numbers from 2019 and 2020. He’s seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than ever before with just 3.56. I wouldn’t mind a little more swing and miss and a little more take to his game. I think that would be a big help.
Look at the number of barrels Merrifield has had this year. He’s at seven through 197 plate appearances. That’s 28 PA/barrel. Last season he had 11 barrels in 265 PA, which is a better rate of 24 PA/barrel, but if you go back to a good season in 2019, he had 24 barrels in 735 plate appearances. That’s a worse rate than this year. It was similar to 2019 in 2018. So he’s barreling as many balls as in the past, but he’s making more contact, which decreases the percentage. It’s definitely an issue for him.
Can he bounce back?
This is the part I’m not confident about. Father Time is undefeated. For some players, the decline starts later than others, and I have some worries that Merrifield’s game has been impacted a fair amount by the ball, but I don’t have anything to prove that really. In my experience as well, counting out Whit Merrifield is a fool’s errand, so I’m not going to say he can’t, but I’m going to continue the calls for him to get a day off. Even with a reduced 2020 and just 45 games so far in 2021, he’s played 991 games since the start of the 2014 season. That’s a lot of baseball. The guy could use a rest beyond a typical off day. Veterans need to be refreshed.
I would say if he changes his approach to be even more selective than we’ve seen this season so far, he can certainly find his way again. He has enough power and speed to be dangerous and his ability to put the bat on the ball makes him a threat. So I wouldn’t say Merrifield is done, but he needs to adjust in order to get the most out of the next stage of his career or else he might be in some trouble.
Thank you David for all the info, been looking forward to this article. I sure hope Whit can rebound to the point he could be a .275/.340/.410 hitter this next 1.5 years. Without a replacement on the horizon that I know of he's pretty valuable if we are going to challenge for a playoff spot next year. While I would love to say this year, next year is more realistic. Great job as always David!
Good piece, I was thinking along these lines, but you articulated it better than I could. I am not too concerned about him yet, but Father Time is undefeated.