Impressions aren’t supposed to be exact representations of the source. This is especially true when trying to impersonate someone else—a great impression of a celebrity (or weird uncle, for that matter) will accurately capture their essence but also accentuate their oddities just enough to bring attention to those elements.
To put it another way, no impression is better or more authentic than its source material, even though it may look and sound that way. But a good impression will bring the person or thing impersonated to mind immediately regardless.
So it is with Whit Merrifield. This year especially, but throughout his short career, Merrifield is doing his very best Ben Zobrist impression, and it’s been working rather well. Whether Merrifield is actively trying to emulate the last good Kansas City Royals second baseman is beside the point—watching Merrifield feels like watching Zobrist play.
Zobrist was drafted in the sixth round, the 184th overall pick, a 23-year-old second baseman from Dallas Baptist University. Merrifield was drafted in the ninth round, the 269th overall pick, a 21-year-old right fielder out of the University of South Carolina. Neither one ever made a top 100 prospect list. Zobrist made his Major League debut in his age-25 season, Merrifield in his age-27 season; neither were full-time players until their age-28 season.
Then, of course, there’s the versatility. In his career, Zobrist has logged over 200 innings at shortstop, second base, left field, center field, and right field, and has logged at least 40 innings at both corner infield spots. Merrifield has played over 1000 less games than Zobrist, but has already started games in right field, left field, first base, second base, and third base. Defensively, they are extremely similar: their second base and left field defense is good, and they are a bit below average elsewhere, but not extraordinarily so.
But any comparison between the two must involve offensive comparisons, and that’s where you would think Zobrist would blow Merrifield away. Indeed; Zobrist’s career OPS (on base plus slugging) is 17% above league average, and the insanely small difference between his walk rate (an excellent 12.4%) and strikeout rate (a low 14.9%) is evidence of his tremendous plate discipline. For his short two-year career, Merrifield grades out as average; though he has good contact skills and has worked a higher batting average, he lacks the plate discipline or power that the 6’3” switch-hitting Zobrist possesses.
It would be folly not to point out the obvious: Merrifield will never be as valuable as Zobrist. Zobrist has had a superb career, and while he probably won’t be ever voted to the Hall of Fame, with another excellent few seasons he’ll definitely get some votes. Zobrist is a three-time All Star whose sustained versatility has been unmatched, who only missed out on a Gold Glove because of said versatility; he’s a two-time World Champion, a core part of the championship homecomings of Kansas City and Chicago, and owns a World Series MVP trophy in his trophy case. His five-year peak from 2009 to 2013 is as good as anyone who’s in the Hall, with an OPS 25% greater than league average and 29.5 WAR accrued over that period.
But it would also be folly not to point out the less obvious: Merrifield has already taken steps to improve his game in the vein of a Zobrist. Merrifield’s isolated slugging percentage is 66 points higher than his rookie year, and he has done so alongside drastically reducing his strikeout rate from 21.7% to a positively Zobristian 12.6%. Oh, and he’s hitting at a higher average despite a significantly lower batting average on balls in play. He has done this by minimizing his ground balls, and has done so without sacrificing his all-fields approach.
While someone might mistake an impression for the real thing for a few seconds, the impersonator is unlikely to truly convince anyone that he or she is indeed the real thing. But if an impersonator is good enough, they could make a living by being almost the target.
Merrifield is not Zobrist and will never be Zobrist. But if he continues to be as much like Zobrist as he is right now, the Royals will have found a gem out of nowhere, much like big Benny Z himself.