Why Whit represents the best (and worst) of Royals baseball in 2019

On Sunday, June 9th, I was able to attend my second game at the K this year, (the previous one being on June 6th against the Red Sox), and unfortunately, much like my first game in 2019, this one against the White Sox resulted in a loss. While I know some Royals fans (including many in my own friend circle) have thrown the towel in on the season, I still feel like Royals games are still worth attending this summer. The experience at Kauffman Stadium is one of the best in baseball (the stadium grows on me each and every time I attend a game there…this will be talked about in a separate post), and there still are some players worth cheering for on this team. #SolerPower is a legitimate trend, not just a niche within the Royals nerd community, and he showcased that again today. I was happy that I got to attend two games already this season where he showcased his incredible home run swing…

(Yes, I’m thinking Soler may be my favorite Royal this year…I will be absolutely devastated if they trade him. Yes he may only hit .240 at best and strike out a crap ton…but the dingers man.)

Yes, the Royals may not be a good team. Yes, they will not compete for a playoff spot this year and perhaps next year (barring something dramatic). But this team is worth going to the ballpark to, and there still is hope. The cupboard isn’t bare, and it would not be surprising to see the Royals play better ball in August and September after taking their lumps in May and June.

However, one Royals player that bothered me over these past two games at the K was Whit Merrifield. It’s nothing he did, of course, as I do know Whit is a class act and is rightfully beloved by many Royals fans. Over the two game span, and as I have begun to sit down and watch (or listen to) Royals games more consistently with school officially out, I struggle to come to a consensus on what the Royals should do with Whit the remainder of this season and beyond.

In some ways, I could see why the Royals should keep Whit, and anoint him as one of the leaders for this upcoming group of Royals. He has the longest hit streak in Royals history at 31 games in a row, after all. Additionally, I could see him develop a relationship with this fan base in a similar fashion to Alex Gordon in Kansas City. And considering he’s on a pretty team-friendly deal (he’s in the first year of a 4-year, $16.25 million deal through 2022), I could see why keeping him in the Royals blue and white makes sense.

On the other hand, and it’s been bothersome the past two games, I think there are some aspects of Whit’s game that are overrated. I could see the signs of regression coming, and though it most likely won’t happen this year, it’s possible he may not be the player her currently is in a year or two. I also think he may not be a great fit for this team, and would be better utilized elsewhere, where he’s more of a complementary player, and not the centerpiece of a club that needs leadership.

My feelings about Whit go up and down, from confident to sour on a regular basis. In many ways, Whit is the perfect microcosm of the 2019 Royals.

The Good of Whit

In many ways, Whit is a feel good baseball story, as he has always been underestimated as a player, and always bucked the odds and overcame people’s shallow expectations for him. In a great story from Nick Kappel on “Royals Rundown”, Merrifield talked about how he didn’t even play on the local club team that his dad coached when Whit was 12 years old.

Many years before his minor league career began — before he was a ninth-round pick by Kansas City — Merrifield was on a team of local 12 year olds. But he wasn’t among the best nine players on the team, according to the coach — Whit’s dad — so he didn’t play.

“When you’re not playing for your dad, you know you’ve got some work to do,” Merrifield said. “I wasn’t blessed with the natural abilities — size, speed and strength — like a lot of the other guys. I knew I had to work harder than everyone else, and realizing that was a big moment for me.”

-Kappel, “He has become a star: The Whit Merrifield Story”

Merrifield also was a College World Series hero at the University of South Carolina, as he helped them win the 2010 championship, and yet, he didn’t go higher than the 9th round in the MLB Draft. He never was a highly rated prospect in the Royals system like Gordon, Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas. In many ways, the expectations for Whit were probably akin to a Chris Getz or Johnny Giavotella (maybe even less so in comparison to the latter).

And yet, here is Whit, Kansas City Royal as of 2019. He is an All-Star candidate, holds the Royals hit streak record (breaking Hall of Famer George Brett’s record of 30), and happens to be the face of the franchise, with a Boulevard-inspired and collaborated shirt based on him…

And to be honest, Whit’s rise to fame as a Royal the past couple of seasons is justified. Last season, statistically, was an incredible season for the 30-year-old utility player: .304/.367/.438 slash, 12 home runs, 45 stolen bases, 88 runs scored, .806 OPS, 120 wRC+, 5.2 WAR. This year has been more of the same: .298/.348/.487 slash, 7 home runs, 8 stolen bases, 43 runs scored, .835 OPS, 119 wRC+, and 1.4 WAR through 64 games (though after today’s contest many of those numbers will go down).

Whit is proving that his surprise campaign of 2017, where he overcame expectations that he was a backup utility player and instead put up a 105 wRC+ and 2.9 WAR, was no fluke, especially at the plate. When it comes to offensive production, Whit currently ranks third out of Royals hitters when it comes to Runs Above Average, according to Fangraphs, with a total of 5.8 this year. He only trails Hunter Dozier (16.2) and Gordon (9.7), both former Royals first round draft picks.

But while Dozier and Gordon have been more productive offensively this year, they don’t match what Whit has done over the past three seasons. No Royal has been more offensively productive (according to Fangraphs’ RAA) than Whit, as his 38.6 mark is better than anyone who has worn a Royal the past three seasons, which includes Hosmer (31), Lorenzo Cain (15.4), Moustakas (5.5), Dozier (3.1), and Gordon (-21.9). If the Royals could give an offensive team MVP for a three-year span, Whit most likely would win the award, easily.

The Bad of Whit

Offensively, no Royals player has been as productive as Whit. He deserves his just due for going from an unheralded prospect to one of the league’s better hitters. That being said, when it comes to defense, the luster on Whit’s star loses some shine.

Now, Whit gets a lot of kudos for his defense automatically due to his ability to play multiple positions. Now, there is no question that Whit is a solid athlete, but his ability to play multiple positions “well” may be a stretch.

As an OF, Whit shows most of his flaws. According to UZR/150, which evaluates plays made per 150 innings, Whit has proven to be pretty mediocre over a three year span. In 700.2 innings played from 2017-2019 in the outfield, Whit has a UZR/150 of 0.1, which means he will save .1 more run per 150 innings than a replacement level Triple-A outfielder. In comparison, Gordon (10.1), Billy Hamilton (8.4), and even current Omaha outfielders such as Brett Phillips (27.3) and Jorge Bonifacio (2.7), are considered stronger defensive outfielders than Merrifield.

Now Merrifield has proven to be a bit more serviceable at second base over the past three years, as he has a DRS (defensive runs saved) of 14 over the three-year span, which is the best mark for any Royals second baseman. However, when you look at his other numbers, his profile is a bit shakier: his UZR/150 is 0.2; his DPR (double play rate) is negative-1.6; and his range rate negative-0.7. So even though most of his value defensively comes from his play at second, in reality, it’s questionable if Whit is a much better infielder than outfielder, which unfortunately, doesn’t boost his overall profile any.

Of course, I understand people won’t buy the stats or “saber” talk when it comes to defense. I get it. Defensive metrics are still tough to use when it comes to evaluating players at the MLB level. That being said, Whit’s defensive shortcomings are obvious on the field. On Thursday, he failed to communicate with Hamilton and didn’t back up a hit that should’ve been a single that ended up going for a triple. Today, he slightly collided with Hamilton over a ball that was clearly the center fielder’s.

Yes, you can question the numbers, but even when watching him in person, Whit’s instincts in the field deserve critcism.

And it’s not just his instincts in the field, but also in various nuances of the game. Maybe I am being nitpicky, but it seems like Whit fails to come through or execute in critical situations. Today, Hamilton had a great jump on a 2-1 Reynaldo Lopez slider, and Whit swung at it and fouled it off. Considering the Royals were down and needed to get Hamilton into scoring position, Whit should have known better to swing at a breaking ball when the runner is going. And yet Whit did, fouled off two more on Hamilton jumps, and then ended up striking out when Hamilton couldn’t run (because the White Sox were keying on him). That’s something the Royals and Royals fans would expect from Nicky Lopez or Kelvin Gutierrez, just called up from Omaha, not someone of Whit’s caliber.

Furthermore, Whit’s ability to come through in high leverage situations is concerning as well: he is only posting a .575 OPS and 30 wRC+ in high leverage situations this season. In fact, Whit has declined in clutch situations over the past three seasons as his wRC+ has gone from 161 in 2017, 92 in 2018, to 30 so far in 2019. Considering Whit is the Royals’ premiere offensive player, he needs to perform better in high leverage situations in order for the Royals to win more games in 2019.

Final thoughts on Whit as a Royal

I still don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to what the Royals need to do with Whit. This is certainly a tough decision for General Manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost. Whit obviously is the most popular Royals player and one of the most productive offensive players on the roster as well. Furthermore, he is dependable health-wise, as he is avoided to stay off the DL, a feat other Royals on the roster have not had much success with the past few seasons (Dozier, Gordon and even Soler have seen considerable DL time). Lastly, Whit hasn’t done anything of real note to piss off Royals fans or management, and I don’t want my analysis to be an indictment on him as a Royals player and person in general.

That being said, the Royals are in a predicament: they aren’t going anywhere with their current roster and they need to find pieces to trade in order to make themselves a contender again. Yes, Whit could be part of that process, but it’s more likely that he would bring something in return in a trade that would be better for the Royals rebuilding process. After all, Whit’s bat and utility makes him a “Zobrist-like” player on a playoff contender (which is what they imagined he would be when they called him up in 2016). Furthermore, there are warning signs with Whit: the defense, the instincts, the struggles in the clutch this year. The last thing the Royals would like to see would be to hold on to Whit a year or two too long and realized they can’t trade him for anything of value.

No question about it: Whit and his future puts Royals fans in constant internal turmoil (or at least the ones who really follow and care about this team). Just like the Royals this year, Whit has been in many ways, a similar kind of roller coaster as a baseball player this season, and at the end of the day, I wonder if that’s the best thing for the Royals and their fans.

Heck…I wonder how long this “Whit anxiety” will go on…I guess we won’t know until the Trade Deadline.

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