Whit Merrifield has had a fantastic breakout season in 2017, with some calling him arguably the club’s most valuable player. He has solidified the leadoff spot for the Royals and given them power, speed, and defense at the second base position. And to think, he didn’t even make the Opening Day roster.
Whit 17 home runs and 26 stolen bases, Merrifield seems to be well on-pace to become the third Royals hitter ever to join the 20 home runs/30 stolen bases club, joining Amos Otis and Carlos Beltrán (who did it three times). In fact, that mark has been reached just 20 times by a second baseman....ever. Whit would join names like Joe Morgan, Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar, and Ryne Sandberg.
Is it the best season by a Royals second baseman ever? The bar may not be particularly high. Since the Royals entered the league in 1969, all second basemen in Major League Baseball are hitting a combined .266/.330/.382. Kansas City second basemen are hitting .260/.308/.363. The Royals, of course, had a near Hall of Fame second baseman in Frank White, but while he did have a few fine seasons with the bat, he was known more for his glove than his offense. How does Whit stack up?
Let’s take a look first at offense. Whit has already smacked the third-most home runs ever by a Royals second baseman, but it has come in the year in which the most home runs ever have been hit in Major League baseball. Whit should get credit for taking advantage of the home run spike, but if we adjust his offense for the era using Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), his offense has just been a bit over league-average.
Whit is enjoying the best baserunning season ever by a Royals second baseman, despite the fact that Offerman stole 45 bases in 1998. However, that is not enough to close the gap. Jose Offerman was a beast in 1998. If you don’t remember who he was, he was a top shortstop prospect with the Dodgers that made a TON of errors - 79 over a two-year period in L.A. He also had some attitude problems, so they shipped him to Kansas City for lefty reliever Billy Brewer. The Royals moved him to first base, then second base, and his defense improved greatly. Without the burden of worrying about his awful defense, his bat flourished as well, and he was one of the most patient hitters in Royals history.
What if we incorporate defense? Whit has been an above-average defender this year. Let’s look at the top Royals second baseman by WAR, combining both the Fangraphs version and the Baseball Reference version.
It turns out Frank White was really, really good at playing second base! His fantastic defense, and adjustment for his era of baseball, puts several of his seasons ahead of Whit's. Cookie Rojas, one of the first fan favorites in Royals history, also ranks ahead of Whit, as does Offerman.
But Whit is not done this year. He is on pace to finish with an average of 4.2 WAR for the year, which would put him on par with Frank White's best seasons. If Whit could finish strong, who knows, he could have the second-best season ever by a Royals second baseman.
Whit Merrifield came out of nowhere to give the Royals their first very good second baseman in many seasons. He not only looks the part with his speed, power, and defense, but he fares well by the metrics as well. The Royals will need him to continue to put up more seasons like this if they want any hope of contending past this season.