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Examining Whit Merrifield’s slow start

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The results have yet to show.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers - Game Two Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

With questions flying around this offseason of who the Royals should and shouldn’t trade, a name often brought up was Whit Merrifield. One of the more productive players on the 2017 Royals, he had legit value on the market. While it always remained unlikely that the Royals would ever bounce on a deal involving him last winter, it seemed obvious that the question would still float around for all of 2018.

The reasons for the Royals trading Merrifield last offseason weren’t too hard to think up. The Royals were entering an unavoidable dark period, whether they’d like to admit it or not, so trading any assets off for any younger returns made perfect sense. But perhaps the most important reason to trade Merrifield wasn’t due to the current circumstances for the franchise, but rather the possible future circumstances for the player himself.

Whit Merrifield has been not just one of the most surprising player developments for the Royals in recent history, he’s been one of the most surprising player developments in all of baseball on a larger scale. He was never considered a noteworthy prospect, owned a non-impressive career .283/.325/.430 line in the minors, and he had repeated AAA Omaha for three straight years, not seeing a major league field until he was 27. He basically looked like a career minor leaguer.

We all know what happened next for Merrifield. With a little help from the BABIP fairy, he put up a fairly good rookie campaign. After a subpar Spring Training the following year, he was optioned to AAA (where he started to destroy the baseball), returned to the majors within a month, made some very noticeable changes, and blasted away expectations with a 105 wRC+, adding in a career-high 19 home runs (career-high in the minors was nine).

The drastic changes Merrifield made in 2017 have been well stated. Most of it had to do with him muscling up and hitting the ball in the air more (29.8 FB% in 2016, 40.5% in 2017). But with that season being such a huge outlier, concerns rose about the very real possibility of him never hitting that well again, thus creating a reason that the Royals should trade him, as I mentioned above.

And so far on the surface, the start to Merrifield’s 2018 season hasn’t eased those concerns. After ranking near the top in most statistical categories among second baseman last year, here’s where he stands among the 21 qualified second baseman early on this year.

  • Batting average - 14th
  • OBP - 9th
  • SLG - 13th
  • ISO - 15th
  • wOBA - 13th
  • fWAR - 10th

Judging just with a quick glance at the numbers, Merrifield has indeed disappointed a month into 2018. And after noticing this myself, I went to go dive in deeper.

And I’ll just cut right to it. While Merrifield has struggled a bit, there is reason to believe that Merrifield is hitting the ball better than ever.

As represented in the chart above, Merrifield is currently posting the highest hard-hit% of his career. Last year, hard-contact wasn’t really what Merrifield worked with, owning a very below-average 30.6% hard-hit rate, which ranked 109th out of 144 qualified hitters. This year, while early still, he is posting a 42.6% hard-hit rate, a whopping increase that has him ranked 33rd out of 173 qualified hitters this year.

Last year, Merrifield put 148 balls into play that had an exit velocity greater than 95 MPH (or 29.19% of his batted balls), while a bit over a month into 2018 he already has 43 (37.39% of his batted balls).

But yet the results haven’t shown up. The expected numbers would say Merrifield has been underperforming his batted ball results.

So maybe it was the cold weather, maybe it was just lack of good fortune. One way or the other, I’d expect the results for Merrifield to come at some point sooner or later.

I still will voice my concerns though. Not everything is pretty with Merrifield’s profile at the plate. He makes more soft-contact than you like, he wasn’t walked enough throughout his career (though he kinda has this year), and oddly enough, he’s had severe problems with righties this year (.198/.290/.244 line). All these things could possibly interfere with the likelihood of him repeating his 2017 season.

If Merrifield shows any sort of repeat of his 2017 season, the Royals need to seriously think about trading him. Going against some perceptions, he isn’t the youngest player at 29-years-old, so a decline could pop up at any time.

And with that, the perfect representation of needing to get maximum value out of player is shown in Merrifield. The Royals making sure they do just that might play a critical part in this long rebuild.