The Royals have an off day as they travel to Baltimore for a weekend series against the Orioles. Kansas City is coming off a brutal 10-0 loss in the season finale against the Cardinals at Kauffman Stadium, which brings their 2022 record to 1-3 against their Eastern Missouri neighbors, and 8-15 overall (which ties them for last in the Central with the Detroit Tigers).
While spirits may be low in Kansas City after a brutal loss to St. Louis (which is never easy to stomach, especially when it comes at Kauffman), there is hope that the Royals can bounce back on this road trip against the Orioles and Rangers, who are both in last place in their respective divisions. A winning record against the Orioles, Rangers, and Rockies, respectively could be exactly what this Royals ballclub needs to help build the momentum and turn things around after a rough start to the 2022 season.
If the Royals want to get back into the positive graces of Royals fans, they will need some production from their offense, especially on this road trip in two parks that are pretty hitter-friendly (Camden Yards and Coors Field). Currently, the Royals rank 29th in wRC+ (80), ahead of only the Cincinnati Reds (67), who are 3-22 so far this season.
However, if Kansas City wants to see more production from their lineup, they will need to see better at-bats from Whit Merrifield, who has been one of the Royals’ franchise cornerstones since 2018.
Unfortunately, when digging deep into Whit’s numbers so far this year, that may be easier said than done, and not just for the remainder of this season, but beyond 2022 as well.
When looking at Whit’s surface-level metrics, it can be easy to see why he’s fallen down the batting order (he’s recently batted fight) and has been the subject of a lot of criticism from frustrated Royals fans.
After all, Whit is posting a triple-slash of .151/.198/.183 with an OPS of .381 and wRC+ of 11 in 101 plate appearances. Whit is also generating an fWAR of -0.5, and, according to ZiPS projections, is expected to generate a 1.9 fWAR for the rest of the season.
If he finishes with a 1.4 fWAR, that would be Whit’s worst mark in that category over a full season since his rookie season in 2016 (not counting the shortened 2020 season).
At 33-years-old, it seems like age is finally catching up to Whit, and his batted ball metrics seem to hint at that as well, via Baseball Savant:
The lackluster percentiles in average exit velocity (21st), max exit velocity (19th), hard-hit rate (30th), and barrel rate paint Whit as a hitter with declining power skills. In addition, his low walk (28th percentile) and middle-of-the-road chase rates (52nd percentile) don’t exactly comfort Royals fans that he can get on base and score runs consistently, even if he’s going through rough batted ball stretches, which is the case now.
Whit is currently experiencing a batting average of balls in play (BABIP) of .171. That is not only the third-worst mark of all Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances but also the 8th worst mark of all qualified hitters in Major League Baseball, according to Fangraphs.
What’s interesting to see though is the tremendous difference in Whit’s expected stats and his actual stat line this year, which is mostly due to that depressed BABIP.
If Royals fans take a look at his Statcast metrics over the past few seasons, as evidenced in the table below, they will not see a whole lot of difference from his 2020 and 2021 campaigns, with the exception of weighted on-base average (wOBA).
Whit is actually hitting the ball harder (a 35.4 hard-hit rate; 87 MPH average exit velocity) and striking out less (12.9 percent K rate) than last season. He’s also posting a higher walk rate than in 2020 (4.5 percent) and 2021 (5.6 percent), which is another promising sign. And lastly, his xWOBA of .304 is actually three points higher than his mark in the same category a year ago, and his xwOBACON is only one point lower than 2021.
And yet, Whit’s wOBA of .178 is 128 points lower than a year ago, and 151 points than in 2020.
Thus, what gives with Whit’s struggles at the plate?
Well, a lot seems to be tied to his batted ball metrics.
Even though Whit’s launch angle of 14.8 degrees suggests that he is hitting the ball the same as in 2020 (15.8) and 2021 (14.1), his line drive and pop-up rates suggest a different story.
Let’s take a look at Whit’s batted ball numbers since his rookie season in 2016, and pay attention to his regression in line-drive rate and sharp increase in pop-up (IFFB) rate:
Right now, Whit is only generating a line-drive rate of 18.5 percent.
That is not only 5.8 percent lower than a year ago, but it is also the first time in his career that he’s produced a line-drive rate under 20 percent (his previous lowest mark was in 2017 when it was 21.8 percent).
Additionally, his pop-up percentage is 11.8 percent, only the second time it’s ever been in the double digits. Granted, he had a double-digit pop-up percentage in 2018 (14.7 percent), but he benefited from an abnormally high line-drive rate (29.5 percent) as well as BABIP (.352) that season. With a much more depressed line drive rate, many of Whit’s other offensive numbers have taken a dive as a consequence this season.
If Whit is going to see any kind of improvement this year at the plate, he’s going to need to see an increase in that line drive rate in the coming weeks with the hope that it can creep back into the 20+ rate level sometime in late May or early June.
Should that happen, Royals fans should be a lot more optimistic about Whit performing better in the Summer months, which in turn will help this Royals lineup overall in 2022.
Now, if Whit is going to improve his line drive rate (and lower his pop-up rate), what does he need to do at the plate specifically?
His zone charts from the past couple of years can give Royals fans an idea.
Now, let’s take a look at his expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) chart from last season.
Whit struggled a lot with those balls up and inside, which is demonstrated by those .217 and .291 zones. Furthermore, on pitches low and away, the 33-year-old also showcased some issues, as evidenced by those three blue zones on the right side of the dish (from our perspective). That was mostly due to Whit waving on breaking balls, which often were located in that area of the strike zone (he had a 29 percent whiff rate on breaking balls a season ago).
Here’s an example of Whit whiffing on a curveball thrown by Oakland’s Paul Blackburn, who locates in that zone where Whit hit .243 in 2021.
Now, let’s take a look at 2022, and see what Whit’s xwOBA zone chart looks like:
What’s interesting to see is that Whit has actually been hitting the ball better against those pitches thrown in the lower right areas of the strike zone in comparison to a year ago.
Unfortunately, he’s still struggling on those pitches up and inside parts of the strike zone. Even worse, he’s struggling on those middle-middle and inside-middle pitches as well.
It’s going to be hard to see an increase in production on Whit’s end if he’s only hitting .269 on pitches located right down the middle.
A big issue is that Whit is just getting under such balls pitched in that zone and only hitting long fly balls for outs. That makes sense considering the “deadened” ball and his lack of ability to generate high exit velocity on batted balls consistently. It is also a contrast to him getting on top of those pitches and hitting line drives, which was more typical in past seasons for Whit.
Here’s Whit this year unable to do much with a Nick Wittgren fastball down the plate, even though he generates decent contact on it initially.
Maybe that’s a home run in June and July when the ball is more apt to carry in the air. That being said, Whit needs to focus on generating line-drive singles on those pitches, at least for the time being, in order to help him get on base more consistently and be in a position to steal more bases and score more runs.
The clip below is an example of Whit not trying to do too much with a pitch in an at-bat last year against Cleveland’s Zach Plesac, and thus, getting a line-drive single in the process.
Whit needs to get back to basics and find that simple swing again.
Right now, he is just producing too many flyballs and pop flies, and not enough line drives.
After all, line drives have been his calling card for most of his career and a reason why he’s been a multiple-time All-Star.
Right now, it is easy to think pessimistically about Whit’s outlook both this year and beyond.
The regression in line drive rate is worrisome, and his declining average exit velocity over the past couple of seasons isn’t promising either at his age, as evidenced by this breakdown chart below, via Savant:
There’s no question that Whit may only have a year or two left in regard to being a productive player at the Major League level. After all, at 33-years-old, it’s very difficult for players, especially hitters, to beat “father time”.
That being said, while Whit’s struggles are frustrating from a Royals and Royals fan perspective, there are some positive signs from his metrics this season.
So much of his struggles are tried to his lack of line-drive rate this season. If he can find an ability to hit more of those, especially on those pitches middle-middle and middle-in, then it’s possible that Whit could get his slash numbers back up to a respectable level by the beginning of June.
If that happens, then Whit could find himself back up at the top of the Royals order sooner rather than later.
And this would be much needed for a Royals team that has failed to find a “fit” in the leadoff spot after they moved Whit out of the spot a couple of weeks ago.
The Royals are better with Whit hitting leadoff…
But they need him to get back to his old self in order to put him back there for the remainder of 2022.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images