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Whit Merrifield: Power Hitter?

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Two-Hit Whit is hitting dingers, now

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Whit Merrifield was a pretty popular guy in 2016. In a season where the Royals battled injuries, regression and World Series hangover, Whit gave fans a shot in the arm when he came up from Omaha guns a’ blazin’. He had hits in each of his first 11 starts, including multiple hits in seven of those games, and was hitting .320 after his first 30 games. It wasn’t much long after that we began seeing Whit Merrifield shirseys littering Kauffman Stadium.

Unfortunately, he struggled down the stretch and finished the season with a 89 wRC+ and a sub-.400 SLG%. So after all the two-hit-Whit hysteria, Merrifield came into spring training without a guaranteed roster spot. And he ultimately lost that spot to Raúl Mondesí.

However, Mondesí inevitably struggled this year and cleared the way for Merrifield’s return. What has happened since is definitely some weird baseball.

Entering tonight’s game, Merrifield has six home runs, resulting in a .484 slugging percentage. If that number stood, it would be the highest mark of his professional career. He is also hitting a home run once every 21 at-bats. For his career, he has hit a home run for every 66 at-bats.

As a result, his 1.0 fWAR trails only Lorenzo Cain for the highest mark on the Royals. Baseball-Reference likes him more, giving him a 1.8 WAR, which is the best mark on team for a position player. Coming into the season, we all thought Merrifield and Jorge Bonifacio would be leading the charge for the Royals. Obviously.

The home runs are still what get me. Merrifield is no Joey Gathright, but he has never been mistaken for a Steve Balboni. Coming into this season, Whit’s career-high in home runs in a professional season was ten and it took him 636 plate appearances last year to get there. In just 177 plate appearances split between Omaha and Kansas City, he has already hit nine home runs. If you pro-rate what he has done at the big league level, he is on a pace to hit 27 home runs over 162 games.

That number isn’t that high, but given Whit’s history, and the lack of power in this organization, it’s nothing to sneeze at. At the very least, it’s entertaining.

Whit Merrifield has more home runs than Eric Hosmer. He has more home runs than Lorenzo Cain, Cheslor Cuthbert, Jorge Soler, Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon. Combined. I can’t decide if that’s funny or depressing.

He has more home runs than Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Adrian Gonzalez, Hunter Pence, Victor Martinez, Curtis Granderson, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Kyle Seager, or Andrew Benintendi.

Part of the explanation is Whit’s weight gain before the 2016 season. He was intent on adding 25 pounds of muscle to his frame to give himself added bulk. And it worked.

Merrifield, 27, decided to go on a strict training program that included multiple workouts per day and a whole lot of eating.

As in, seven meals per day. Seven.

"I don't know how many calories that is," Merrifield said "But it was nine eggs and oatmeal in the morning. Then chicken and rice and vegetables, three times a day. Then some red meat for dinner, and then a couple of protein shakes mixed in.

"It was hard. There was a lot of preparation and a lot of cooking."

In this case, being in “the best shape of his life” was not lip service. The added muscle has translated into a hard-hit contact rate greater than that of Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer. He has more “barrels” per-plate appearance than Edwin Encarnacion, Anthony Rizzo, or Mark Trumbo.

Will it continue? It is worth finding out. The Royals have not had a second baseman hit as many as ten home runs in a season since Alberto Callaspo in 2009. With Mondesí now flourishing in AAA, it might be best to let him enjoy some success for a bit and get a long look at whether Merrifield can handle every-day duties at second so he can open up next year playing alongside Mondesí.

Whit Merrifield has not taken a typical road to get to the big leagues. But perhaps the Royals are due for an atypical development success story.