Whit Merrifield Sends Omar Infante Packing

In December of 2014, the Royals gave up on Johnny Giavotella, shipping him to the Angels for non-prospect relief pitcher Brian Broderick. Giavotella didn’t exactly set the world on fire after being dealt, but the biggest ramification of this minor transaction was that Omar Infante was basically assured another season as the primary second baseman in Kansas City, despite a thoroughly underwhelming 2014. The Royals temporarily addressed the problem mid-season last year when they acquired Ben Zobrist, but when Zobrist signed with the Cubs in the offseason, the 34-year-old Infante entered this season as the Royals’ default second-sacker yet again.

On the surface, there simply wasn’t any competition. Christian Colon seemed like the only other option on paper, and he’s never looked like more than a utility bench bat. Raul Mondesi — the club’s top infield prospect — clearly needed more seasoning in the minors, and then got suspended in May for taking cold medicine with steroids in it. Infante predictably started 2016 as a de facto everyday player, and continued his quest to keep sticking as a major-league regular, despite refusing to hit baseballs.

When the Royals suffered injuries to Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon — due to them colliding into each other going after a pop-up — the versatile Whit Merrifield seemed a perfect stopgap. The 27-year-old is primarily a second baseman, but also has loads of experience in left field and can play third base — exactly the two positions KC needed someone to cover. Merrifield was actually called up a few days before the collision, but as soon as Moustakas and Gordon put each other on the DL, he found himself batting in the No. 2 spot in the Royals lineup every day.

Last week, Merrifield bumped Alcides Escobar and his .244/.268/.287 slash from the leadoff spot, where he’s now spent the last six games. More significantly, he’s now bumped Infante from the roster entirely, as the Royals designated the 34-year-old for assignment yesterday.

Against righties, Merrifield starts at second. Against southpaws, he slides over to left field, allowing Colon to cover second and get the left-handed Jarrod Dyson out of the lineup. Sometimes he gives Cheslor Cuthbert a breather at third. No matter where Merrifield starts the game, his position in the lineup remains unchanged. He’s right up there at the top.

By slapping Infante with a DFA, the Royals made a statement about their belief in Merrifield. This intrigues me, because the latter was never considered much of a prospect. In fact, to the best of my searching ability, this post is the first mention of his name on this website — aside from the June 3 episode of “The Sleeper and the Bust” podcast. With this, I invite you to join me on a journey to figure out Whit Merrifield.

As I write this sentence, I know nothing about Merrifield beyond his surface stats and what little I’ve seen of him. According to my scouting notebook, I saw Merrifield play a Triple-A game in July last year. I know this only because I wrote down the lineups.

I made no other mention of Merrifield beyond that, other than noting a double-steal he executed with Reymond Fuentes. I freely admit all of this because I suspect many of you feel the same way. “Where did this guy come from? Is this sustainable?”

(Quick aside: Looking back at this game, it was one of the more entertaining minor-league games I attended last year. Carl Crawford was in town on a rehab assignment for Oklahoma City, and Kris Medlen was on a rehab stint of his own for Omaha. Corey Seager launched a bomb, Crawford went 3-for-4, Brett Eibner had a monster game…all in all, I forgive myself for forgetting Merrifield. He was on zero prospect lists, and was a 26-year-old with a .265/.317/.364 Triple-A slash. By the way, guess who pitched the ninth inning for Omaha that day? None other than Brian Broderick, the player dealt for Giavotella.)

One positive that immediately jumped out to me when I looked at Merrifield’s (admittedly small) body of work in 2016 was his ability to handle righties (.845 OPS) and lefties (.846 OPS) almost exactly equally well. Looking back through his minor-league data, this seems sustainable. He had his years in the minors when he hit either righties or lefties better, but for the most part, it evens out. Also, it seems he has stolen-base upside that he’s not yet showing in the majors, as he swiped 138 bags in 683 minor-league games.

Merrifield’s .392 BABIP screams “RED FLAG,” but then I took at look at his batted-ball data. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, his 40.8% hard-hit rate would be good for 15th in baseball, in a tie with Mike Trout. His 13.2% soft-hit rate would also be a top-20 mark, at No. 19.

These are the players who appear on both top-20 lists for hard-hit and soft-hit rate: Matt Carpenter, J.D. Martinez, Joey Votto, Chris Carter, Miguel Sano, Jay Bruce and Chase Utley (that one surprised me). That is some pretty fine company for a 27-year-old rookie to find himself in.

Still, that BABIP is clearly unsustainable, and Merrifield’s plate discipline scares me a bit. His 2.0% walk rate is alarming, and his 18.6% strikeout rate is higher than you’d like to see from a guy who never hit double-digit homers in any given minor-league season. Fortunately, these are both issues that I expect Merrifield to work out, given his history (7.8% BB, 15.1% K in 2,947 minor-league PA).

Here’s where things got really interesting for me: After a paltry .099 isolated power in 2015, Merrifield put up a .181 ISO in his 163 Triple-A PA this year, and is currently sitting on .170 in the majors. Even combining his Triple-A and MLB numbers for the year is a small sample compared to his extensive minor-league body of work, but this is a significant change, and one worth digging into.

I’m about to show you two videos of Whit Merrifield hitting homers on middle-in pitches against right-handers — one from May 2015, and then his first major-league homer from this week. Let’s examine the 2015 dinger first:

Note the open stance, with his hands pushed forward away from his body. Then, look at how much his power relies on his upper body. He steps into a more closed-off swing, but his power appears incredibly reliant on getting his hands through the zone quickly. He first sets his lower body, and then swings. There’s no fluidity to it.

Now, take a look at his first major-league homer, hit on Monday:

Right out of the gates, it’s clear that he’s significantly altered his stance. He’s much more closed off, and his hands are pulled in, as compared to his previous approach. He’s still got that leg kick, but now instead of using it to shift his open stance inward, it serves both as a timing mechanism and to keep his weight balanced. Compared to last year, both his front and back feet are far more stable during his swing, creating a better base to incorporate his core strength.

Merrifield isn’t going to hit for a .330 AVG all year, but if he can get his K/BB ratio more in line with his minor-league rates, that will go a long way toward mitigating BABIP regression. He now has seven homers in 265 PA between Triple-A and the majors this year, and just from looking at the significant improvements he’s made to his mechanics, I believe that to be sustainable. Once he starts stealing bases — and his speed is for real, as his 16-for-17 success rate in just 36 Triple-A games this year attests — he’s going to become a very fun player.

As of this writing, Merrifield is just 12% owned in Yahoo leagues. At that kind of ownership rate, it’s not even a question of if he’s for real, it’s a question of why no one in your league wants a middle infielder who is batting leadoff and currently hitting .330. But is he for real?

The answer to that question will come once pitchers adjust to Merrifield, and we get to see whether he responds or not. That’s the breaking point for any hitter with limited exposure to major-league pitching.

As of right now…yeah, I think he’s legit.

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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PaulC
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PaulC

Good stuff. Merrifield or Jose Ramirez? They seem similar in the categories they cover, with Ramirez a better bet for stolen bases. I picked up both but can only carry one. Need Runs and SB more than anything else.