The 2018 Pod Projections are now available! For the first time, the package includes NFBC ADP, along with all historical Pod-developed xMetrics. My projections are based on the methodology shared in my eBook Projecting X 2.0, and the process continues to evolve and improve (thanks Statcast!).
From a four homer, 16 stolen base pace to a 19 homer, 34 steal fantasy breakout, Whit Merrifield was one of many surprising fantasy performers last year. Never a top prospect and already 28, no one saw this coming. This was especially true since Merrifield didn’t even open the season as the Royals starting second baseman.
So the knee-jerk reaction was very clearly to chalk this up as a fluke and figure severe regression in 2018. This hasn’t happened, though, as fantasy owners are mostly buying in, selecting him 69th off the board in NFBC leagues. Should we be part of that group of buyers or pass on such an exorbitant price?
Plate Appearances: 645
After bouncing around the Royals lineup and hitting toward the bottom of the order for a period, Merrifield’s strong offense ultimately pushed him to the leadoff slot, which he held from early June through the end of the season. Since he’s going to open the year with every day at-bats this time, and won’t be buried at the bottom, I’m forecasting a small jump in plate appearances, offset by my expectation that he bats second, with the newly signed Jon Jay hitting leadoff.
Merrifield has never been much of a walker, as he sports higher than average O-Swing% and overall Swing% marks. But his 4.6% mark last season was low, even for him, so I’m figuring some improvement here.
Merrifield has generally posted strikeouts rates in the mid-teens, and he cut down on his whiffs this year, bringing his strikeout rate in the Majors down from 21.7% to just 14% last season. But if you used my batter xK% equation on his 2016 mark, you would have known that he possessed substantial upside on that strikeout rate. That year, his xK% was 16.8%, and his 2017 mark was validated by a 13.9% mark. That said, given his history, projecting some regression here was the right call.
GB%/LD%/FB%: 40% / 22% / 38%
For a guy not known for his power, Merrifield sure hits a lot of fly balls. It wasn’t even due to the fly ball revolution, as he had posted FB% marks in the 40% to 45% range at multiple minor league stops. My projection is an acknowledgement of his fly ball tendency, but regresses a bit given his skill set that might be better utilized by hitting the ball on the ground more.
A .361 BABIP in 2016 raised our eyebrows, but guess what his xBABIP was… .362. That was mostly due to a 25.5% LD%, of course, which was unlikely to be repeated. It wasn’t, and his BABIP fell to just .308, while his xBABIP declined to .316. He owns several of the skills we want to see from a high BABIP guy, but his fly ball tendency and pedestrian BABIP marks in the minors throughout most of his professional career gives me pause to project anything higher.
HR/FB Ratio: 7.5%
Merrifield’s 19 homers was possibly the most surprising of his fantasy contributions last season. But the amazing thing is that it required just a 9.4% HR/FB rate. That’s far below the league average, and not that much higher than marks he has posted several times in the minors. And not only does xHR/FB rate support the spike (9.7% xHR/FB), but it suggested upside back in 2016 as well (6.6% xHR/FB vs 2.9% actual). My projection credits him with real power growth, but accounts for the possibility that he declines closer to some of his minor league days.
Runs and RBI: 80 and 66
While batting second in the order would normally afford a player more RBI opportunities than the leadoff slot, the Royals offense is looking potentially a bit sad in the OBP department. I have projected 14 Royals hitters, and just one of them is forecast for an OBP above .326. That one man is Jon Jay with his .334 projection, and that mark isn’t even very good. That lack of guys on base, coupled with fewer homers, is resulting in a down RBI projection.
Did you realize that Merrifield just set a new career high in stolen bases in a season? Even if you add up all his minor league stints over one year, you would fall short of the 34 he just swiped. So that’s one reason for the decline. Another is, he’s 29 years old! Players don’t get faster, they get slower. And last, he might attempt a steal less often batting second, rather than first.
Below is my final projected hitting line, along with the other systems for comparison:
Surprise, surprise, the Fans are the most bullish! Are they ever not? Amazingly, for a guy who was one of 2017’s biggest offensive surprises, the projections are pretty darn close. I was about to mention how I was not surprisingly the lowest on the stolen base totem pole, but THE BAT is even lower than I am, even after extrapolating the forecast over the same number of plate appearances I’m projecting.
THE BAT is also lowest on his BABIP, with all other systems in the mid-teens, while the new kid on the block is all alone just above the league average. That system is also easily the highest on his walk rate. I don’t know enough about Derek Carty’s system to explain the outlying forecasts.
So now with all the projections at hand, let’s return to the original question — should we be part of that group of buyers or pass on such an exorbitant price? I think the answer is a definite BUY. I have already drafted him in one league, so I feel that his price is more than fair. Of course, I just published research that proves last season’s breakouts are terrible investments. But that doesn’t mean all of them are. I think Merrifield’s skill set will ensure he avoids the post-breakout dropoff.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.