Whit Merrifield Does it His Own Way
And it's hard to deny that it's worked.
You may know Whit Merrifield as the most consistent player on the Royals roster. Since his first full season in 2018, he has more plate appearances, at bats, hits and singles than any other player in baseball. He also has the fourth most stolen bases in that time and is tied with some guy named Mookie Betts for the sixth most doubles. His .300 average is tied for 11th best and his .352 OBP 51st. That’s all out of 164 players, so it’s a pretty long list.
So let’s start this off by saying that Merrifield is good. But I wouldn’t be writing this if that’s all there was to talk about. Nope. He’s also weird.
You know by now that one of my favorite graphics is the Statcast one that shows percentile ranks. Here is Merrifield’s:
Look at that exit velocity and hard hit rate! Oh and that barrel rate. Woof. Now, 2020 was admittedly a bit of a down year for him due to an uncharacteristic 11 game freefall where he went 5 for 46. His usually boosted average was down to .248 after that stretch, so to finish where he did is pretty amazing. He immediately came out of that and finished the year hitting .349/.372/.470. So because of that, his 2019 numbers are assuredly better. Let’s take a look.
If you didn’t see that coming, I’ve got some land to sell you because, come on. There wouldn’t be an article to write if this wasn’t a trend.
So how does a player who ranks poorly in hard hit rate and exit velocity and barrel rate continue to succeed every single year? It’s a good question, but one that has at least a few possible answers.
While Merrifield doesn’t seem to really hit the ball hard much at all, he doesn’t really hit it softly either. According to Fangraphs, put of 142 qualified hitters in 2020, Merrifield’s soft-hit percentage ranked 49th, so that’s near the top third. His medium-hit percentage was second in all of baseball. So he’s not out there smoking the ball, but he’s also not hitting a bunch of weak ground balls to third.
Since the start of his first full season in 2018, there have been 164 qualified hitters and Merrifield’s soft-hit rate of 14.5 percent ranks 44th. Again, he ranks very well in medium-hit percentage at 17th. If you look at the guys around him in hard-hit rankings, it’s actually not a bad list. Guys like Dexter Fowler, Carlos Correa and even one of my free agent crushes from this winter, Jurickson Profar are there. So solid players. Around him in soft-hit rate, though, are players like Nelson Cruz, Ronald Acuna, Jorge Soler and Anthony Rendon. Slightly different company.
There’s a lot of value in hitting the ball hard, but there’s also a lot of value in not hitting the ball weakly, especially for a player like Merrifield who sprays the ball all over the field.
Pretty much all the power is pull side, though he does have the occasional burst to right-center field as you can see with a handful of doubles and one home run in 2020. But he really does use the entire field. In fact, in 2020, he used the center of the field almost as much as anyone. Being able to do that is impressive and a skill worthy of praise in today’s baseball. He was shifted on twice in 2020. He’s been shifted 29 times since his debut. Compare that to, say, Jorge Soler, who was shifted on 143 times in 2020 and 288 in 2019 and you can see there’s a bit of a difference.
It’s amazing what a hitter can do if his game means the opponent can’t put defenders in one spot. I’m not an advocate for banning the shift by any means, but if MLB wanted teams to stop doing it, they’d find a way to monetize what players like Merrifield do because the amount of teams shifting all the time would decrease significantly.
Combining his ability to hit to all fields and actually make contact is what has made Merrifield so successful. He had his lowest strikeout rate of his career last year at 12.5 percent. His walk rate suffered as well, so that’s something to watch for, but he just didn’t swing and miss much last season with the best swinging strike rate of his career at 7.1 percent. It’s not like he was whiffing much before, but this was a new level.
The point here is that Merrifield is a bit of a throwback player. He doesn’t try to play a different game than the one he can succeed in, and that’s been to his benefit. It actually reminds me a bit of what we’ve heard from Andrew Benintendi almost from the minute the Royals acquired him. He tried to hit the ball in the air and put it over the wall more than he had before and what happened was him struggling. If Merrifield tried to do that, I would bet he’d struggle too.
And it’s worth noting that one area in which he did struggle in 2020 was against offspeed pitches. He hit just .195 on them with a .341 slugging percentage. But his xBA was .313 and his xSLG was .544. So where’s the discrepancy? He actually hit offspeed pitches harder than any other pitch and had a very low whiff rate on them. It might be worth noting that he was 0 for 11 on offspeed pitches during his rough stretch and 8 for 30 with two home runs the rest of the season. So that could be a short season blip where he just didn’t have time to make up for it all.
He’s not your typical hitter in baseball today, and the home run is absolutely the most efficient way to score a run. Iff the Royals had nine guys who could hit 40 home runs, I’d take that all day. But no team does (well, the 2019 Twins seemed to), so give me the guy who doesn’t do it the same way as most other players but does succeed quite a bit. Add in that he can still really run with his sprint speed in the 89th percentile (though at some point it’ll drop) and I’ll absolutely take a guy who puts the ball in play and can leg out a few hits too.
And for whatever spring stats are worth, he’s picked up right where he left off at the end of last season. He’s 12 for 27 with four doubles and just three strikeouts in 29 plate appearances. Now with a little extra help around him in the lineup, I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being his best season yet. Sure he does it his own way, but there’s no arguing that it works.