Is Whit Merrifield Simply Unlucky?

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

On the TV broadcasts recently, it has seemed like every few nights the broadcasters bring up Whit Merrifield's hard hit rate. They seem to want to push a narrative that his bad season thus far is simply a function of terrible luck. In part, they are correct, but there are some underlying problems with Whit's stats that suggest a lot of his problems are real.

Starting with the aforementioned hard hit %, Whit has tended to hang out in the upper 20s the last several seasons. That means that when he puts the ball in play, it is above 95mph almost 30% of the time. This season he is sitting at 33.3%, so a little better than usual, though not strikingly so. That coupled with his BABIP of .187 suggests that he should be due for some hits that have not been falling, and his numbers should regress upward toward a higher mean. Baseball Savant has his expected batting average at .260 and xwOBA at .303, which would be almost exactly the same as last year's outcomes. His xSLG however, is only .290, way lower than last year's .383 slug.

The problem is that not all hard contact is created equal. Even with the higher hard hit rate, Whit's average exit velocity is in line with the last several years, meaning the balls that are not hit hard are going slower than normal to pull that average back down to typical levels. Also, Merrifield's line drive rates has dipped this year. to 18.7%, and it has been dropping every year since 2018. So, even when he puts the ball in play, it seems that too much of the time it is either on the ground, or worse, a pop fly. These are statistics that stabilize fairly quickly too, so you can start to trust them much earlier in the season than something like batting average. Ground and fly ball rates start stabilizing by 80 balls in play, though line drive rate takes much longer so is less trustworthy at this point.

So it is a mixed bag for optimism as it relates to Whit Merrifield right now. He is getting fewer hits than he should based on his batted ball profile, but the contact he is making is tending toward too many pop-ups and ground balls, which lead to an above average number of outs, the pop-ups especially. It could portend that even as his numbers rise with the temperature this summer, they may come up short of his historic levels.

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