There were only 32 qualified hitters this past season who made contact at a higher rate than Whit Merrifield. That in and of itself is respectable. But it gets better. Whit was more likely to get a hit when he put the ball in play than any of those players ahead of him. In fact, his batting average on balls put in play of .350 was ninth best in all of baseball. This is where I would typically say that a BABIP that high is unsustainable, fluky, a sign that regression is eminent. Except he ran a BABIP of .352 last year. So go suck an egg, Seth.
How does one maintain a BABIP of .350+ for two consecutive seasons? I’ll answer that question shortly, but before I do, I want to point out how rare that particular feat is. In the past decade, only fourteen players have done it. If Whit can pull it off again next year, he’ll join Andrew McCutcheon (2012-2014) and D.J. LeMahieu (2015-2017) as the only players in the past decade to have done it in three consecutive seasons.
So how does one do this? It helps to lead the majors in line drive rate. By Fangraphs’ definition, Whit hit liners at a 28.5% clip this season, which was tops in baseball. Speed helps too, and we all know that Whit is quick. His sprint speed of 28.6 ft/s was in the 85th percentile. That’s a decline from years past (more on that later), but still enough speed to earn 21 infield hits, tying him for sixth-most in baseball.
When you consider that he also played in all 162 games, it’s no wonder Whit led the league in hits. Again. And broke George Brett’s franchise hit streak record. And made his first All-Star team.
This was a good year for Whit.
In addition to continuing his success at the plate, he showcased his versatility in the field, logging innings at first and second base as well as all three outfield positions. DRS (-1) and UZR (-5.3) didn’t think much of his defense in the outfield. However, he fared better by Statcast’s Outs Above Average, which uses real science and stuff. By that measure he was +1, which isn’t amazing, but it did put him in the top 50 in baseball. He was most valuable when he played second base (7 DRS, 0.8 UZR), but Whit relieving Jorge Soler of his duties in right field was a positive for the team. It’s hard to argue against that move even if it diminished the defensive value of their best player.
After leading the league in stolen bases the past two seasons, he was not able to defend his title this year. In fact, he didn’t even come close. After swiping 45 bags in 2018, he only stole 20 this past season and was caught stealing a whopping 10 times. He lost a step, as is inclined to happen at age 30, with his sprint speed declining from 30 ft/s to 28.6 ft/s. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was enough to drop him from the 92nd percentile to the 85th. That’s still very fast, but not quite the elite speed he had when he was younger. He also stated that he had made a conscious decision to be less aggressive on the bases in order to preserve his health – a smart thing to do in a 100 loss season, but not a strategy for racking up stolen bases.
As mentioned before, Whit broke George Brett’s franchise hitting streak record this season. On April 10, after having gone 0-for-3 in his first three at bats, he laid down a bunt single, driving in a run and extending his hitting streak to a franchise record 31 games. The fact that he bunted in that situation is one of the Royalsiest things that’s ever happened, but it brought the KC faithful to their feet and elicited a heartfelt salute from Brett himself. The next night he would go 0-6, ending the streak. It was the longest hitting streak in major league baseball since 2011. In another 100-loss season, this was a much-needed bright spot and a nice achievement by Whit.
Laying one down straight into the record books. pic.twitter.com/6IpvDIibmc— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) April 11, 2019
Whit also made his first All-Star team, being selected as a reserve. Though the Royals were one of the worst teams in baseball, Whit was not a token All-Star selection. A player worth 2.9 fWAR who bats .302/.348/.463, runs the bases well and plays solid defense at multiple positions is a worthy All Star. Though he went 0-for-2 in the All Star Game, he represented the Royals nobly.
In an era where exit velocity is the stat du jour, and balls are leaving the park at an unprecedented rate, Whit Merrifield is a rarity. He does not hit the ball very hard. He does not hit very many home runs. Instead, he makes a living by consistently racking up singles, doubles and triples (did I mention he was tied for the league lead in triples? And fifth in doubles?). That’s not sexy, and it’s not going to get a lot of attention outside of Kansas City. In fact, if I’m being honest, I probably don’t give him enough credit for what he does. But he might just be the best contact hitter in baseball. And he had another great season in 2019.
Good job, Whit.
What grade would you give Whit Merrifield for his 2019 season?
This poll is closed