If ever there were a moment in which health was highlighted as impermanent, it was this afternoon when Whit Merrifield fouled a ball off his knee, going to the ground before being tended to by Royals trainer Nick Kenney and hobbling off the field.
Whit Merrifield is arguably the best player on this iteration of the Royals. To piggyback off of one of Hokius’s comments over the weekend, there is some question as to whether a team this bad is allowed to have a best player. For the sake of discussion, let us assume the 2018 Royals can in fact have a best player.
While Baseball Prospectus’s WARP values Mike Moustakas’s contributions more highly—1.4 WARP to Merrifield’s 0.9 WARP (presumably driven by a disparate view on Merrifield’s defense, as his .271 TAv is higher than Moustakas’s by .008 points)—both fWAR and rWAR view Merrifield as the most valuable Royal to date. His 2.1 rWAR outpaces Kelvin Herrera by 0.6 rWAR. With 2.1 WAR by either measure, he edges out Moustakas by 0.8 WAR on both valuations.
His value is arguably higher than it’s ever been before. Yes, his much-improved walk rate is probably the most pleasant development in his season. Finally walking at a league-average rate has helped alleviate some of the pain of a downtick in the power department from last year and helped mask the fact that he looks increasingly to be a player who would ideally face lefties only.
With his value as high as it is at present, Dayton Moore and the Royals should be trying to ship Merrifield off post-haste, as he’ll be 33 or 34 before the Royals can even dream of being competitive again. Middle infielders have a nasty habit of falling off a cliff performance-wise around that time. Does anyone need a reminder of how Omar Infante’s time with the Royals went?
The sooner they trade Merrifield, the more club control a prospective trade partner would get, which should at least theoretically increase the return. Of the obvious reasons to move him, this should be front and center. These Royals are hurtling towards 100 losses at breakneck speed, and a future filled with big question marks is still mostly in low-A Lexington, years from making their major-league debuts.
These reasons to move him are all in addition to that foul ball off the knee today and the inherent risk in holding onto an asset that is a serious injury away from being nigh-worthless in a strictly asset-driven view of things.
Let us never forget the folly in Moore not having moved Joakim Soria, David DeJesus, or Greg Holland in time. All prime assets to be traded to better set the team up in the long run, each got injured as the time to trade them at their peak value passed with Moore sitting on his hands. This meant the Royals were resigned to non-tendering Soria and Holland and getting org arms like Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks for a dinged up DeJesus, who at one time could have yielded a significant return while he was still viable as a center fielder.
Obviously, Merrifield is not eligible for arbitration for another year, so the urgency to trade him is not quite the same as it was with DeJesus or even more so pitchers like Soria and Holland, but at 29 years old, continued decent health is no sure thing.
Timing is far from the only reason to deal Merrifield. Warning signs persist that he could be outperforming his true-talent level.
Perhaps most notably, his xBABIP (for the uninitiated, the x in front of the stat means expected incorporating factors like quality of contact using Statcast data) is .306 this season, but his actual BABIP is .344. Before the most strident of his apologists [this author’s sworn enemies] step forward in his defense on this stat, his BABIP last season was .308.
He is presently slashing .295/.372/.425, inflated by that BABIP. Looking at how his xBABIP affects what he should have been hitting, his xAVG/xOBP/xSLG are .270/.351/.406. His xwOBA is .331 compared to his actual wOBA of .349.
This has helped mask the fact that the power has fallen away as many had predicted. His .130 ISO is still better than what his minor-league career portended, but dudes get stronger in their late 20s. If the ball is unjuiced as Jeff Zimmerman had heard may happen sometime during the year as the remaining balls from last year were potentially exhausted, this year’s ISO is probably closer to his TTL than last year’s possibly aberrant .175 ISO. This could well mean that his dongage will settle into the 8-12 range that seemed more likely as he embraced the air-ball revolution with middling-at-best power. That aforementioned .130 ISO is lower than league average has been in every season since 1994, and league average this year is .161, so it’s decidedly below-average at present.
Furthermore, if those some of those fly balls that were leaving the park last year are now going to stay in the park, there are a handful of would-have-been home runs that will now be outs on the warning track.
Then there is the fact that his platoon splits are worrisome. When facing lefties this year, he is slashing an otherworldly .405/.444/.667 with a .469 wOBA and 204 wRC+ over 90 PA. Unfortunately, he only faces southpaws about 30% of the time. In 209 PA this year against right-handers, Merrifield has hit a woeful .243/.341/.311 with a .296 wOBA and 85 wRC+. If it weren’t for a stronger walk-rate against righties this year, he would be virtually unplayable at the plate for 70% of his season.
If we look at the fWAR leaderboard, there are 35 position players who have been worth 2.0 fWAR or more, Merrifield being just over that threshold. Of those 35 players, Merrifield’s four homers are tied for fewest with Andrelton Simmons, whose value is tied heavily to his transcendent defense but who is also having a solid offensive campaign. Only five of the top 35 have fewer than eight dongs hung. His 121 wRC+ is the worst mark amongst those 35. Merrifield’s .130 ISO is better than only Simmons and Jose Altuve. The bulk of his 2.0-fWAR-and-up peers are well above both of those marks.
His baserunning—easily his biggest strength and the trait that a leg injury could sap in a heartbeat—is keeping him on this leaderboard. Per the defensive component of fWAR, he’s only getting negligible positive value from his defense—0.5 Def, tying him with Jurickson Profar for 63rd of 159 qualified players, putting him in the general vicinity of other unspectacular defenders like Matt Carpenter, Matt Duffy, Brian Dozier, and Aaron Judge.
If his BABIP regresses to where xBABIP thinks it should be, Merrifield will fall far from the company he currently shares. With the prospect of being competitive so far off and so far into what will likely be Merrifield’s decline phase, the Royals cannot afford to risk Merrifield turning into a pumpkin.
Assuming the Royals aren’t lying about Merrifield only having bruised his knee (and it’s not too late already), the Royals should really be trying to get a return on him sooner than later. The speed that pushes much of his value is likely to begin tapering off soon, and as has been elucidated above, there’s reason to expect regression to the mean (with a negative connotation in this instance) to come knocking at Merrifield’s door.