Royals Review reader Kirk (who you can find kicking around in the comments and on Twitter) asks:
Something I’ve heard from time to time is, “Give me a team full of <blank> and I’d win championships.” So my question is, what would a team of Whitleys look like? (Besides very white.) I would expect some variation with his defensive value based on the position, but would could we assume his offensive output would remain the same? I look forward to your take on this, and I’ll listen off the air.
“Give me a team full of Whit Merrifields and I’d win championships”
First off, I’m sure Rex Hudler has said this either on-air or inside his head when watching Merrifield.
You may be familiar with an experiment from a few years ago where someone put together a team made solely of Adam Dunns, Dee Gordons, Bartolo Colons, and The Koji Ueharas.
As Kirk points out, yes, this team would be whiter than Cool
Whit Whip and mayonnaise mixed together and put on white bread in a snowstorm. But more importantly, would this be a good team? Yeah...it probably would be pretty good. There have been teams in the past that featured mostly good and above average players, disregarding the stars and scrubs approach.
This years LA Dodgers batting core didn’t feature any one star for most of the season (save for midseason acquisition Manny Machado) and still made it to the World Series. That squad had six batters finish between three and five wins above replacement:
Justin Turner (4.5 bWAR)
Max Muncy (4.5)
Cody Bellinger (4.2)
Chris Taylor (4.1)
Yasmani Grandal (3.3)
Enrique Hernandez (3.3)
With Yasiel Puig coming in close at 2.7. Even the “laggards” on the sheet were still average or so, with Joc Pederson (2.3) and Matt Kemp (1.1) filling out the overall lineup card.
But what would a team of Merrifields actually look like? Well let’s find nine players, one matching each position (AL rules here so eight and a DH) that are closest in results to Whit’s 2018 season. We are going to narrow it to players since 1973 (the start of the DH rule) and look at single seasons. This could lead to random names who had just one good year filling out our lineup but we’ll defer to guys who had good overall careers if it is close. Now there is going to be some trickiness in the positional adjustment. We’ll call Merrifield roughly a league average at second base. However a league average defending 2B isn’t as good in value to league average SS, just as an average defending right fielder isn’t as good as an average defending center fielder. To adjust for that, FanGraphs has their defensive metrics which take raw run totals and adjust them for a position.
For a baseline, here is 2018 Whit Merrifield
Catcher - 1986 Bob Brenly
Okay so not many catchers steal 40+ bases (John Wathan’s 36 bases stolen in 1982 might be the record for a catcher), so we are going to be automatically working at a disadvantage in finding someone. Still, the best I could find (while trying to match as many criteria as possible) is 1986 Bob Brenly:
A little disappointed in that WAR total but we are working with profile boundaries here.
First Base - 2014 Todd Frazier
As with catchers, racking up steals as a first baseman isn’t a trait often seen. The same handicap is given for defense as well. Meanwhile 1B is known for power, and Merrifield took a step back in that in 2018. So we’ve got 2014 Todd Frazier.
Second Base - 2008 Brian Roberts
Yeah, I suppose we could just use Merrifield here but where is the fun in that? Let’s use Brian Roberts, who actually might be the best criteria fit in this entire thing.
Shortstop - 2006 Derek Jeter
We are going to hit the heavy over on wRC+ with Jeter but we are going to come in fairly nicely in the other peripherals. Jeter’s defense was always overrated but in 2006 he was putting up near career high hitting numbers and a career high in stolen bases.
Third Base - 2016 Jose Ramirez
The year Ramirez broke out and told the world he was an elite player (he was 23 years old to boot), Ramirez is an excellent base runner who can add value on the bags without racking up gaudy stolen base figures. He’s of course also a good hitter and decent fielder at the hot corner.
Right Field - 1974 Bobby Bonds
Okay I hope you noticed the year and the first name on a second read. While Barry Bonds is the better half of the father/son duo, Bobby was no slouch. The elder Bonds was worth almost 60 wins in his career, put 300+ home runs and 400+ stolen bases to his name. His 1974 season fits very tightly.
Center Field - 2000 Johnny Damon
Hey we found an ex-Royals player! This would be Damon’s final season as a Royals before being shipped off to Oakland (then signing a big deal with the Red Sox), Merrifield actually kinda shares of profile traits with Damon. Bonus points that they are both leadoff hitters.
Left Field - 2006 Alfonso Soriano
Okay we’ve definitely gone off the track in the power department but we’ll pick up some points in other metrics. Soriano had two big years in 2003 and 2004 before going to the Rangers in the Alex Rodriguez trade. There he would be a “disappointment”, being worth about half his value in those two year. Immediately after joining the recently created Washington Nationals, Soriano bounced back with a career high ISO and home run total. Putting up only one of four 40/40 seasons in baseball history.
Designated Hitter - 1988 Paul Molitor
We aren’t going to find an above average fielding DH, just by nature of the position and the metric. There were though some above average base running designated hitters. Molitor fits our overall bill mostly, and also checks in with a nice steal total for a DH. Truth be told, Molitor fit our criteria in three different seasons (1988, 1992, and 1994) with 1988 probably being the closest fit of them.
We ended up over on home runs, under on stolen bases, and missed baserunning and difference by ~2.5 runs. I think we hit wRC+ spot on (came in 3% high) and got as reasonably close as we could ask for ISO and WAR.
How many games would that team win? It would have to be 90+ at least when the worst hitter in your lineup has a 113 wRC+. If a team made up of replacement level players come in ~45 wins, then adding the Kansas City Merrifields (~47 wins) gets you to 92 wins and we haven’t counted pitchers yet. Even a cromulent pitching staff should get you 13-15 wins, so now we are at ~105 wins.
This would be a good baseball team, even if we don’t know the pitching staff or the backups to the starting nine. Having a lineup of Merrifields in-and-of itself should make you a contending team.
We run into a snag just out of hand. We are comparing players across different eras of baseball. While wRC+ adjusts for that, a home run in the early-2000s isn’t worth the same as a home run today (it’s worth more today). So while the raw totals of home runs, steals, and ISO might be wide, we’ve got an adjustment made in wRC+. That helps a bit and reflects how Soriano can go 40/40 and be worth not that much more than Damon’s 16/46 a half decade earlier.
Here is what the real experiment would be, and maybe worth an article down the road: since we know most of the inputs for WAR, we could simply take Merrifield’s offensive and defensive runs above average, adjust them for each different position, add the baserunning/replacement/league adjustments, and then we’d have WAR totals for Merrifield. That takes a little bit of math and elbow grease. It is doable (and I think you would just need to make the positional adjustments but I could be wrong), so we’ll keep it in our pockets for next time.