While most of the fantasy community fawns over young talent, many overlooked Whit Merrifield’s breakthrough in 2017. In NFBC drafts prior to the 2018 season Merrifield only carried an average draft position of 69th overall, at a time when stolen bases prove to be difficult to procure in spite of being one season removed from 80 runs, 19 home runs, 78 RBI, 34 stolen bases and a solid .288/.324/.438 slash line in 148 games. Perhaps his late age breakout caused fantasy owners to be wary of him repeating it this year.
Not only did Merrifield replicate his strong season, he led the majors in hits and stolen bases. He’s only the third player to accomplish the feat since World War II, joining Dee Gordon (2015) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001) in doing so. Merrifield’s season ended in the midst of a 20-game hit streak during which he slashed .318/.375/.482 and will carry over to next season. Merrifield scored 88 runs with 12 home runs, 60 RBI, 45 stolen bases and hit a robust .304/.367/.438 in 158 games this year.
Although his home run total dropped, Merrifield more than made up for it with the boost in stolen bases. His team, Kansas City, finished fourth in stolen base attempts in 2018 (0.96 attempts per game) and Merrifield ran often in the second half with teammate Adalberto Mondesi. Between the two, Merrifield and Mondesi swiped a combined 55 bases in 64 tries after the All-Star break. For perspective, Oakland attempted to steal 53 bases, the entire season.
Not only did Merrifield increase his stolen base totals, he also improved as a hitter. He increased his hard hit percentage by 6.3 percent in 2018, his line drive percentage spiked by eight percent while growing his walk rate by four percent. Yes, Merrifield did strikeout more, 2.1 percent to be exact, but it’s passable with the gains in BABIP along with his on-base percentage growth. Raising his contact rates and improving discipline did not hurt either.
Merrifield especially built on these results in the second half. After the break, Merrifield increased his contact percentage to 83.3 percent, reduced his swinging strike percent to 7.9 and finished with a 7.9 walk percentage compared to a 15.5 strikeout rate. Over his last 67 games, Merrifield scored 46 runs with seven home runs, 30 RBI, 28 stolen bases and a .300/.353/.444 line. A slight bump in home runs could be in the offing for 2019 and due to the Royals propensity to run, the stolen bases should continue to accrue for Merrifield as he enters his age-30 season.
Looking at Merrifield’s xSTATS, he did benefit in the BABIP department, which can be fluky. But players with speed can maintain gains at a higher rate in this category. According to xSTATS, Merrifield should have slashed .284/.351/.408 with an xOBA of .332 last season. Keep in mind, Merrifield recorded a wOBA of .319, so the on-base abilities should carry over next year. Trying to gauge his baseline for average in 2019, Merrifield’s expected average the last two seasons would be a very solid .287, especially given baseball’s current climate in regards to batting averages on the decline.
Steamer projects Merrifield to appear in 150 games with 82 runs, 12 home runs, 60 RBI, 31 stolen bases and a .274/.329/.405 slash line. With health, Merrifield should be able to provide a positive return on these numbers. During the last two years, he’s averaging 84 runs, 15 home runs, 69 RBI, 40 stolen bases and a .297/.348/.449 line. These fall in line with the baseline provided by Steamer with a chance for more. Using the xSTATS average of .287 the last two seasons, his xOBA’s of .338 and .332 along with more than 30 steals, Merrifield seems like he could still be a bargain at his Too Early to Mock average draft position of 42.1 with a high pick at 34 and a low of 52 within the mocks.
Stolen base scarcity will continue to resonate with fantasy owners, so targeting a player like Merrifield, who contributes across the board makes him an enviable commodity. Especially given his consistent production compared to his peers over the last two seasons. Targeting “one-trick” ponies can be a drain on cumulative statistics. Not all breakouts look the same and it can be hard to trust post-hype players, but Whit Merrifield’s someone not to overlook as 2019 drafts approach.