Despite only playing in Kansas City for a little over three months, Ben Zobrist will go down as one of my all-time favorite Royals. Zobrist is one of the coolest guys in baseball, had some huge hits during the 2015 postseason, and named his daughter Blaise Royal. His time in Kansas City was short, but it was special.
Before he came to Kansas City, however, I knew him as the first player to ever be so uniformly recognized as underrated that the very term lost all meaning. From 2009-2016, Zobrist had at least a 4.0 fWAR in six of those eight seasons and he had a wRC+ of 126. Of batters with at least 4,000 plate appearances during that span, only two primary middle infielders had a better wRC+. That’s not to mention that he probably should have won the American League MVP in 2009 with an 8.6 fWAR.
Instead, he finished eighth in the race and none of the players in front of Zobrist had a higher fWAR or rWAR than him. That officially began the “Ben Zobrist is underrated” campaign that is probably still kicking to this day. If Joe Flacco was elite, then Ben Zobrist was certainly underrated. But in reality, he was just really, really good.
For that reason, I was skeptical when people began comparing Whit Merrifield to Zobrist, simply because Whit wasn’t as good and likely will never be that good. Sure, they had similarities. Both were non-prospects who at one time were in loaded farm systems and both played their first full season in their age-28 seasons.
But I had never really thought of Merrifield as underrated because he seemed to be respected around the league. Any lack of buzz surrounding his play was most certainly due to the Royals being a terrible team. But then, I saw the ESPN top-100 players for 2019 list and saw Whit sitting at 75.
Now, the Royals are bad again and when they are bad, we don’t really have anything better to do than fight for the honor of our few good players. I fought that battle on Billy Butler’s behalf for years. However, 75 is a really high number on a list looking to answer a simple question:
Who will be the best players in Major League Baseball for the 2019 season? And in 2018, there were only 15 position players in baseball with a higher fWAR than Merrifield.
This fact alone shows that Merrifield’s value isn’t completely appreciated. A subsequent article was published to find out where ESPN had messed up with their 2018 list. One of the goals of that piece was to find “glaring omissions,” from last year’s top 100 list. Merrifield was not present on that list and of the five players that were — Matt Chapman, Blake Snell, Mitch Haniger, Javier Baez, and Ronald Acuna Jr. — only Baez had a higher fWAR in 2018.
So, I think the idea that Merrifield isn’t appreciated enough is a valid one. Fangraphs gives a good “rule-of-thumb” chart for how to give context to WAR. This chart paints with a broad brush, but generally speaking, players with a 5-6 WAR are superstar-level players. Whit had a 5.2 fWAR and a 5.5 rWAR which means that using this rule-of-thumb, he performed at a superstar level, or at least something resembling a superstar level, in 2018.
There have only been 21 seasons in Royals history where a position player had a better fWAR than Merrifield’s 5.2 mark. Of those 21 seasons, 18 were completed by George Brett, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, and Alex Gordon. Some of the players to have never reached that mark include Frank White, Mike Sweeney, Eric Hosmer, Freddie Patek, and Salvador Perez.
Since 1945, only two players have ever led Major League Baseball in both hits and stolen bases like Whit did in 2018. There were doubts about Merrifield’s 2017 success and he responded with a superstar-level season.
Now, there are certainly questions about Merrifield’s long-term viability as a star and his long-term value to whatever team employs him. It’s also important to note that his position isn’t even the most egregious player on this list, with Lorenzo Cain being recognized as just the 56th best player in baseball. So, the credibility of the list isn’t great. It is also a list, which carry about as much weight as power rankings. At the end of the day, it isn’t a big deal.
It does, however, show us that Merrifield is one of the more underrated players in baseball. If he can continue playing at the level he did in 2018, however, maybe that won’t be true for long.