The Kansas City Royals have a good kind of conundrum this season: they have too many good players for too few infield positions. This is a good kind of problem, because the opposite problem—not having enough good players for the number of defensive positions and lineup slots—is how you get the current Royals run of six consecutive seasons without a winning record.
To recap: the Royals have Bobby Witt Jr., who is unanimously considered one of the two or so best prospects in all of baseball and will almost certainly make the team out of Spring Training. They also have Nicky Lopez, a 27-year-old in his athletic prime who came off a 4.4 WAR season, per Fangraphs. Don’t forget Adalberto Mondesi, who has a claim to the title of “Most Dynamic Player in Baseball” when he’s healthy. Throw in Whit Merrifield, who has averaged 3.3 WAR per 150 games stretching back to 2017, and you have four guys deserving of three infield spots.
Now, these problems are good problems because they tend to shake themselves out. One or multiple of the four will probably be injured during the season—you just can’t expect four players to stay healthy for all 162 games—and Mondesi’s injury history makes those odds even more likely. However, it’s still an important question that the team will have to answer because the opposite is also true; at some point in the season, they’ll have to juggle four guys for three spots.
We have an answer for what the Royals will do, it seems. Most likely, Witt will play third base, Mondesi will play shortstop, and Lopez will play second base.
Matheny on @610SportsKC "With Mondi being ready to go at shortstop. ... (Nicky Lopez) is our 2nd baseman. I think he's going to be the best 2nd baseman in all of baseball, and then we're going to give Bobby Witt Jr. an opportunity & get a good look at him at 3rd base." #Royals— Josh Vernier (@JoshVernier610) March 15, 2022
Independently, it makes sense. Witt is very fast, plays smart, and has a strong arm, and it would not surprise anyone to see him win a Gold Glove at some point in his career. Mondesi is even faster and would probably be a Gold Glove candidate at shortstop if he could stay healthy for a full season. And Lopez, well, he should have won the Gold Glove in 2020. Obviously, the Gold Glove award is flawed, but it’s also well known and good shorthand. The Royals infield defense would be very, very good with this alignment.
Unfortunately, this alignment is also the wrong one, because Whit Merrifield at this point in his career should only be playing second base and not right field, as he would in this alignment.
There are a few reasons for this, but let’s go with a non-defensive reason to start: Merrifield just isn’t the productive hitter he used to be. He’s an extraordinarily effective base stealer, yes. He has excellent bat control and sprays the ball over the field, yes. But Whit has never been someone to take a walk, as his career 6.1% walk rate shows. Furthermore, he’s never really had great power, either. He’s had a .134 or worse isolated slugging percentage in half his seasons.
Then, there’s Father Time, who is undefeated. Whit just turned 33 this year, and it seems he’s already been declining when it comes to overall production.
The days of Whit being an above average offensive performer are over. Whit is certainly talented enough to keep being productive. But this is a problem, because the hitting bar for second baseman is lower than that for right fielders. In 2021, the league offensive splits by defensive positions looked like this:
- Second base: .255/.320/.411/.731
- Right field: .253/.330.444/.774
It is easier to play right field than it is to play second base. Therefore, better hitters, who are not as good defenders, play right field. In other words, putting Merrifield in right field is a waste of a spot that could go to someone who has better offensive upside—think a Nick Pratto or MJ Melendez, whose bat could force them to play somewhere in the big leagues a la Andrew Vaughn and the Chicago White Sox. You’d need a really good right field defender, like a Lorenzo Cain, to counter that.
Unfortunately, while Merrifield is a good defender at second base, he is not a good defender in right field. Both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved rate him poorly in right field for his career. To compare the two, we’ll use my personal favorite method of comparing defense—where we average UZR and DRS and prorate the number to 1000 innings—and the numbers are not close.
- AVGDEF/1000, second base: +3.0 runs
- AVGDEF/1000, right field: -6.7 runs
Playing Merrifield in right field as opposed to second base has, historically, cost the Royals nearly 10 runs over the course of a full season. To put this in perspective, that’s just about equivalent to the difference between Lorenzo Cain and your league average center fielder in a given season.
Unfortunately, the trick here is that there’s no perfect alignment. If you keep Merrifield at second base, that bumps Lopez to shortstop, where he is not as good as he is at second base. Of course, that also forces Mondesi into a utility role, and that might not be the optimal space for him. And if you put Mondesi at third base and put Witt at shortstop, suddenly you have not one but two unknowns on the defense.
Again, these sorts of things will work themselves out. But, at the end of the day, the data suggests that the Royals are approaching this incorrectly. Rather than considering Merrifield first as a second baseman, they are considering him first as a utility player, a guy whose flexibility is valuable. That’s just not true anymore: Merrifield’s second base play is valuable. His flexibility, where he plays other positions around the diamond at below average defensive production with an increasingly likely below average bat, isn’t so much “flexibility” as it is “inefficiency.”