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Whit Merrifield is in the zone

The late-blooming Whit Merrifield is taking full advantage of his opportunity as an everyday player.

MLB: Houston Astros at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It seems that 2017 is the year of the older ballplayer who ‘figures it out’. Yonder Alonso, Eric Thames, Justin Smoak, Chris Taylor; all guys who have been kicking around baseball for a while but haven’t made their presence felt until now. They’ve done it in different ways, with Alonso an embodiment of the fly ball revolution and Thames a poster boy for improved plate discipline. While not making quite the same impact as those other guys, let’s tentatively add another name to that list of late bloomers — Whit Merrifield.

This is only Merrifield’s second year in the major leagues, but he was drafted back in 2010 and is 28 years old, so it’s been a slow progression to this point. When you look at his minor league stats, there aren’t really any indicators of future success. He had an excellent 2014 with stints in both Double and Triple-A, but the .394 BABIP in Triple-A stands out as a big reason for Merrifield’s 120 wRC+ at that level. At no point in any of his other minor league seasons did he come close to that 2014 BABIP or overall production.

Despite underwhelming numbers, Merrifield got a shot with the big club last year. The Royals knew that he would probably be a below league average hitter, but a month or so of brutal offense at the keystone from Omar Infante and Christian Colon surely made even that palatable. In 81 games last season, Merrifield performed about how you would’ve expected based on his minor league track record; a low walk rate with very little power, but a decent average bolstered by a most likely unsustainable BABIP. His 89 wRC+ wasn’t great, but it blew Infante and Colon out of the water.

This year Merrifield has been much better. He’s shown more pop and is performing as an above average hitter overall. Let’s compare this season to last.

Whit Merrifield 2016 vs. 2017

2016 81 332 2 5.7% 21.7% .109 .361 .283 .323 .392 .309 89
2017 45 179 6 6.1% 12.8% .172 .301 .288 .337 .460 .340 111
Data via FanGraphs

There are a couple of huge, non-result based differences that stand out. First off, Merrifield has cut his strikeout rate dramatically. The 8.9 percentage point difference has taken him from around league average to one of the best in baseball. The next change is that his BABIP has come down to earth to .301 from 2016’s mark of .361.

What’s curious here is that despite the drop off in BABIP, Merrifield’s average is around the same area as last year and his overall offensive production is way up. What gives? How can he not be getting nearly as many balls to fall in, yet be outperforming 2016’s results so dramatically?

The drop in strikeout rate is a big factor, but he’s got to be making better quality contact too, right? Nope.

Whit Merrifield Contact Rates 2016 vs. 2017

Season O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Soft% Med% Hard% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
Season O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Soft% Med% Hard% Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
2016 67.3% 92.1% 82.6% 12.0% 52.3% 35.7% 87.0 mph 11.9°
2017 73.0% 88.4% 82.9% 14.7% 49.7% 35.7% 87.7 mph 14.5°
Data via FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

Not only is Merrifield’s contact rate almost exactly the same overall, he’s traded contact inside of the zone for contact outside of the zone, which is generally of worse quality. His average exit velocity is almost identical and his hard hit rate IS identical. While his launch angle has risen a bit and may explain some of the newfound success, he was already lifting the ball pretty well. A change in contact quality isn’t responsible for Merrifield’s breakout, if anything the increase in O-Contact should be hurting him.

Let’s check to see if he’s swinging differently.

Whit Merrifield Swing Rates 2016 vs. 2017

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% SwStr%
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% SwStr%
2016 33.9% 63.5% 47.6% 8.3%
2017 33.2% 70.0% 50.0% 8.6%
Data via FanGraphs

Ah, there it is. His swinging strike rate and swing rate outside of the zone are almost identical, but Merrifield is showing a much more aggressive approach on pitches in the zone.

Graph via FanGraphs

Perhaps most impressive is the specific nature of the change; being more aggressive in the zone without letting that aggression bleed into bad pitches outside of the zone as well. Check out Merrifield’s overall swing rate heat map and how it’s changed from 2016 to 2017. You can see that most of the increase has come on pitches on the inside and in the upper half. He’s also done a better job laying off pitches down and away that are just outside.

Swing Rate Heatmaps
Zone Charts via FanGraphs

As you might gather from both the area where he has an increased swing rate and the area where he’s shown more patience, Merrifield is targeting fastballs.

Chart via Brooks Baseball

We saw earlier that Merrifield is not making better contact overall, but he is making better contact against fastballs.

Here are those numbers, exempting the split-finger fastball because it typically moves more like an offspeed pitch.

Whit Merrifield vs. Fastballs (FF, FT, FC, SI)

Season FB% Seen Avg Exit Velocity ISO wOBA xwOBA
Season FB% Seen Avg Exit Velocity ISO wOBA xwOBA
2016 64.7% 88.2 mph .128 .369 .333
2017 57.1% 90.3 mph .234 .398 .393
Data via Baseball Savant

He is seeing fewer fastballs this year, but he’s hitting them harder and seeing improved results by both isolated power and Statcast’s expected wOBA metric. In 2016 he outperformed his expected wOBA, but this year his actual and expected numbers are in line. Comparing his isolated power heat maps from the past two seasons against fastballs; if you throw Merrifield a fastball inside this year, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Isolated Power Heatmaps
Zone Charts via FanGraphs

He’s swinging more where damage can be done and is reaping the benefits. That’s not to say that Whit Merrifield has gone full Joey Votto, but he has shown a marked improvement and aggression in the zone without adding more swing and miss overall.

He will probably never be an all-star or even a consistent above-average regular, but the Royals finally have a middle infielder who won’t drag down their offense.

All stats current through June 10, 2017.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.