When the Royals announced last February that Whit Merrifield would be their full-time right fielder, I was pretty despondent, for multiple reasons. I did not like that the Royals would have their best player change positions to find more at-bats for Nicky Lopez. As it turns out, I was pretty wrong about that! I did not like that Kansas City just seemed to like the idea that Whit could play multiple positions and was determined to let him.
With Whit getting his MLB call fresh off the Royals’ World Series win, the Ben Zobrist comps came quick. They liked that he could play everywhere. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t better in one spot. And, as it turned out, he was.
Whit was really good at the plate in 2019, far better than he was this season. According to wRC+, he was approximately 18% better. However, Whit will finish with a higher fWAR this season. And that can largely be attributed to Merrifield being back at second base full-time.
The title of this article suggests that the Royals saved Whit from themselves by moving him back to second, but that’s actually not super accurate. A hot spring from Kyle Isbel and an injury to Adalberto Mondesi did that. Kansas City came into this season ready to throw Whit into rightfield, either being ignorant to the fact that it would make him a worse player or just not caring.
And for no other reason than some weird circumstances, Whit will finish this season with the second-highest fWAR of his career despite this season easily being his worst at the plate. Here’s what we know.
Whit is really good at second base defense
Aside from Whit’s so-so 2017 season at second base, he has been an asset at that position, especially this season. His 12 defensive runs saved are the sixth-most in baseball and the most by a second baseman. His 7.4 defensive runs above average is tied for the Major League lead among second baseman as well.
He should win a Gold Glove this year. That’s not just fan talk. There is not a second baseman in the American League with better defensive numbers than Whit. And it has absolutely saved a season where he has struggled at the plate for the first time since 2016.
Whit is really good at stealing bases
Whit doesn’t have blazing speed, but he’s really good at stealing bases. His .318 OBP would be the lowest of his career, making his 40 stolen bases all the more impressive. He is stealing bases at a more prolific rate than he did even in 2018 when he led the league with 45 swiped bases. And while stolen bases aren’t nearly as valuable as we once thought they were, this has produced runs for the Royals.
Despite a career-low OBP and below career-average BB%, he has scored 93 runs, the second-highest total of his career. He has Nicky Lopez and Salvador Perez to thank for that as well, but the reality is that he scores when he steals.
Whit’s value tanks when he isn’t doing those two things.
Here’s the kicker and why getting him back to 2nd base was so important. When he isn’t stealing bases and playing second base, his value tanks. Take 2018 and 2019 as good examples. At the plate, he was very close to the same.
Whit Merrifield 2018 v. 2019
|Stat||2018 Whit||2019 Whit|
|Stat||2018 Whit||2019 Whit|
In many respects, he was better in 2019. He scored far more runs, hit for more power, and had a higher OPS. The league’s ISO in 2018 was .161 and jumped to .183 in 2019, so his drop in wRC+ with respect to his increased power and OPS makes sense given the power surge of 2019.
Despite being pretty much the same, if not a better hitter in 2019 compared to 2018, his fWAR was just 2.9 compared to his career-high 5.1 in 2018. And that can largely be attributed to a decrease in base running value (7.4 baserunning runs above average in 2018 v. 1.5 in 2019; 45 SB v. 20 SB) as well as a dip in defensive value (2.9 defensive runs above average v. -7.4) and positional value (0.1 v. -2.3)
In other words, Whit’s defense and base running is more impactful on his value than his bat. He controls his base running. I’m not sure if there is a correlation between Whit’s worst base running seasons (2019 and 2020) coming when he plays outfield. With that said, it’s clear that his value is hurt when he plays outfield.
This conversation becomes more difficult in 2022. With Bobby Witt, Jr. on the cusp of the big leagues, Kansas City will need room on the infield for him, Adalberto Mondesi, and now Nicky Lopez. Unless they move Mondesi to the outfield, Whit might be back out there again.
If that’s the case, he’ll need a strong bounce-back season at the plate to retain his value. For this year, though, his move back to second base has paid off in a big way.