Let’s play a game, shall we? The question is - who is this Kansas City Royals position player, a longtime team veteran who has played both infield and outfield in his career and whose bat is above-average but not particularly flashy?
If you responded “Who is Alex Gordon,” you would be correct. Originally an infielder, Gordon moved from third base and became a Kauffman Stadium institution in left field. Gordon only played for the Royals, from the MLB draft all the way through his 30s. While Gordon did have a breakout year in 2011, Gordon’s peak comprised almost entirely of above-average yet under-the-radar offense driven by a strong command of the strike zone and reliable doubles power.
A comparison to future Royals Hall of Famer Alex Gordon is high praise for Whit Merrifield, who some of you also answered the question with. If you did so, you would also be correct. They’re not quite the same, obviously—Merrifield is faster and had better contact skills than Gordon, who walked more and had more power. But their offensive production was pretty similar: from ages 28 through 31, Gordon’s OPS+ was 116 and Merrifield’s was 112.
But Gordon encountered a wall in his age-32 season. From then until his retirement, Gordon only hit .234/.318/.362, only good for an OPS+ of 84. He couldn’t make as much contact, and his power waned. Father time comes for everyone.
Merrifield was a late bloomer, only making his big league debut in his age-27 season. He is now in his age-32 season, the same season that Gordon suddenly stopped being productive. And, thus far, Merrifield is following that trajectory to a T: since April 14—a span of 35 games and 152 plate appearances—Merrifield has hit .212/.296/.295, with one lone home run. It is 32% below league average, and he has only accrued 0.3 WAR in that time.
It’s safe to say that the normally consistent Merrifield has been struggling worse than he ever has in his big league career. Since his rookie season in 2016, Merrifield hasn’t posted an OPS under the .600 OPS mark in any month of his career, but he has done so this year in a little less than one-fifth of the season. Worst of all is that Merrifield has been doing this while leading off every single game, and to have a no-power hitter with a sub-.300 OBP at the tip-top of the lineup every night is a recipe for a struggling offense.
As a result, considering his age, it is absolutely fair to start worrying about Merrifield. He’s at the age where you would expect to see a decline. But all is not lost, because some players are simply more productive for longer. Ben Zobrist hit better than league-average every year from his age-30 season to his age-35 season and even hit 17% above league average in his age-37 season.
And, luckily for Merrifield, his hitting profile this year is actually starkly different from his career averages:
- He’s swinging at pitches outside the zone less than any other season
- He’s making more contact at pitches inside the zone than any other season
- He’s making more contact at pitches outside the zone than any other season
- He’s swinging and missing less than any other season
- He’s had fewer called strikes than in any other season
- He’s pulling the ball more than in any other season
- He’s hitting fewer line drives than in any other season
- He’s posting a career-high walk rate
- He’s posting a career-low strikeout rate
It would be one thing if one or a couple of these categories was an outlier; these things happen. But for Merrifield to be posting career highs (or lows) in all nine of these categories at the same time speaks to a difference in approach. And, encouragingly, Statcast data shows his average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and barrel % to be right in line with career averages. You’d expect a greater change there if his decline was age-related.
Honestly, Merrifield should consider incorporating more swing-and-miss into his game. Walking at a high rate is great, and striking out at a low rate is great, and making contact is great, but hitting is a unique cocktail of those three elements. It could very well be that, paradoxically, Merrifield gets on base most effectively when making less contact and generating more quality contact as a result.
Or it could be aging. Who knows! Death comes for us all. Eat Arby’s. Merrifield has a strong track record, but we’ll ultimately just have to wait.