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Whit Merrifield is still good, but he shouldn’t lead off anymore

He shouldn’t be The Guy at the top anymore

Whit Merrifield #15 of the Kansas City Royals comes off the field during the game against the Cleveland Guardians at Kauffman Stadium on April 9, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Whit Merrifield #15 of the Kansas City Royals comes off the field during the game against the Cleveland Guardians at Kauffman Stadium on April 9, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

In the young 2022 season, the Kansas City Royals have struggled to score runs. You don’t have to look hard to find out why: the team as a whole has the third-worst OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) in baseball. They also have the second-worst walk rate in baseball and the second-worst ISO (isolated slugging percentage) in baseball.

This is—how do you put it—bad, it’s bad. Of course, we’re eight games into the year. A lot of weird things can happen in a short stretch of games. For instance, the 2005 Royals team was the worst squad in franchise history en route to a whopping 106 losses, and they went 7-2 over a nine-game stretch in June. Likewise, the 2015 World Series winning Royals team won 95 regular season games and went 2-8 in September.

So, yeah, it’s not time to panic. But we can make calls based on longer stretches of data, and it is more than fair to say that some of the Royals’ scoring problem starts from the top. Whit Merrifield is a good player, but he shouldn’t be hitting leadoff anymore.

A team’s leadoff hitter is the most important and the most unique spot in the lineup. There are two reasons why this is the case. One, it is the only spot in the lineup where they are guaranteed to lead off an inning with no one on base ahead of them. Two, it is the spot in the lineup that receives the most plate appearances over the course of the year.

In practice, this means that a leadoff hitter should be good, because they’re going to get more plate appearances than the hitters further down in the lineup. Additionally, you want them to be able to get on base at a high clip. In most lineups, they are both less likely to hit behind great hitters and more likely to hit in front of sluggers who can drive them in. This is pretty standard stuff that anybody who’s played Backyard Baseball or MLB: The Show probably figured out on their own.

Here’s the issue with Merrifield: he’s no longer a good hitter, and he’s no longer a good OBP guy—and this has very little to do with this year and an awful lot to do with long-term performance.

Since 2020, no player in Major League Baseball has more plate appearances than Whit Merrifield, who boasts 1019 and is, as I type this, the only player thus far to break into the quadruple-digits (by this article’s publishing, Marcus Semien will eclipse 1000 PA, and perhaps Freddie Freeman, too). However, there are 26 players who have accrued 900 or more PA since 2020. Merrifield has more steals than any of them, but his offensive production relative to his healthy top-of-the-order peers is not great.

  • wRC+: 92, ranked 23rd
  • BB%: 5.2%, ranked 25th
  • ISO: .124, ranked 22nd
  • OBP: .314, ranked 24th

It’s the top and bottom of that bulleted list that really matter. The way wRC+ works is that each point above or below 100 is one percentage point better or worse than league average for that season. At 92, Merrifield’s offense is eight percent worse than league average. And that .314 OBP is also slightly worse than league average, too.

Unfortunately, at 33 years of age, Merrifield’s offensive heights are behind him, even though it seems that he’s not been in the league that long. That is squarely the Royals’ fault; Merrifield closed out 2014 hitting .340 in most of the season at Triple-A, but the next year the Royals willingly employed a combination of Cheslor Cuthbert (19 wRC+), Alex Rios (72 wRC+), Paulo Orlando (89 wRC+), Omar Infante (43 wRC+), and Jonny Gomes (26 wRC+; lol) instead of the reigning 26-year-old Pacific Coast League batting champion (or the guy who flirted with hitting .400 in Triple-A and was snapped up by the Cardinals for nothing).

Alright, alright, I’ll get off my soapbox, but the Royals’ mishandling of Merrifield’s early career is irrelevant to the fact that he is older now and the core offensive metrics that matter have been trending down for a few years. Just check out these 50-game rolling graphs of Whit’s OBP and wRC+:

Merrifield’s 50-game rolling OBP, decreasing from its peak in 2018.
Merrifield’s 50-game rolling OBP, decreasing from its peak in 2018.
Merrifield’s 50-game rolling wRC+, decreasing from its peak in 2018
Merrifield’s 50-game rolling wRC+, decreasing from its peak in 2018

To be clear: Merrifield is still a good player! He’s an excellent baserunner and one of the league’s premier stolen base artists. He can play multiple positions and his excellent bat control and contact skills mean that he’s usually going to put the ball in play and will often get a hit from it.

Merrifield just isn’t a leadoff hitter anymore, at least not a good one. That’s no knock on Merrifield—it’s just what he is at this point in his career. I begrudge no one for aging, especially as a new entrant into the 30-year-old club.

There are, then, two questions, that arise from this conclusion. First: who should lead off?

Well, the ideal leadoff guy is Nicky Lopez. Since last year’s breakout season, the 27-year-old Lopez boasts a .366 OBP in 590 plate appearances and is in his athletic prime. He’s an excellent baserunner and can swipe bases, too.

The other guy that we should be talking about is Andrew Benintendi. Benintendi bats third already, so it’s not much of a shift up two spots to the leadoff spot. Plus, he has a career OBP of .348 across seven seasons.

And if the Royals want to have a platoon situation up top, well, they can do that, too. Hunter Dozier has a career .330 OBP against lefties, and Bobby Witt Jr. hit an absurd .353/.415/.681 against lefties in his 2021 Minor League Player of the Year season.

The Royals have options. But that brings us to the second question that arises from the conclusion that Merrifield shouldn’t be the leadoff guy: will the Royals do it?

Well, unless Merrifield really starts to stink and the Royals go on a prolonged losing streak, I’m guessing...no. Merrifield is a veteran, a leader in the clubhouse, and has “put in his dues,” so to speak. Mike Matheny and Dayton Moore are loyal to their guys. Merrifield is one of Their Guys. That’s probably it.

At the end of the day, this isn’t a huge deal. Merrifield being a subpar leadoff hitter isn’t going to make or break the season. The Royals have other more pressing issues. But just because it isn’t a huge deal doesn’t mean that it’s not a deal at all.