Whit Merrifield is breaking out at 28. Late bloomers happen, and there really isn’t much of a template to them. Some guys just figure it out in their late 20s or so. Merrifield certainly is doing that this year, and it looks like he may have staying power at the keystone for the Royals because of the way he’s altered his approach at the plate.
In 2016, Merrifield was recalled as a utility man. Over his 81 games played in separate stints, Merrifield showed himself to be a capable defender and baserunner. Though he played most of his games at second base, Merrifield also appeared in the corner outfield spots, third base, and first base. Across all of those spots, he amassed a 4.7 FRAA. On top of that, he stole eight bases on 11 attempts and amassed a 3.7 BSR.
However, Merrifield didn’t provide a ton of value with the bat. He posted a 89 wRC+ with a .309 wOBA and a .253 TAv. This doesn’t inspire confidence, especially with a .361 BABIP. Moreover, Merrifield has never been patient at the plate and he showed that with a walk rate of 5.7 percent and a K rate of 21.7 percent. But, he was still a 1+ win player over those 81 games. Overall, Merrifield had the makings of a decent utility man with marginal offensive upside.
This year, Merrifield has displayed a solid amount of offensive upside. His aggregate offensive statistics have spiked up significantly. He currently sits at a 111 wRC+, .339 wOBA, and a .289 TAv. All of this is being done at a .309 BABIP as well.
Arguably the most impactful change is what happens when Merrifield makes contact. Currently, his average, observed launch angle is up from 16.89° to 20.51° and he’s seeing a spike in exit velocity from around 84 mph to north of 87 mph.
This has caused a massive shift in how his batted balls enter the field of play. Both line drives and ground balls have been siphoned off to fuel his fly ball spike.
Whit Merrifield Batted Ball Rates - 2016 v 2017
In addition to that, Merrifield has been much more successful at turning those fly balls into long balls. The effect of this change is seen across the board with Merrifield — a near-80-point spike in ISO certainly isn’t anything to scoff at.
Merrifield has also become more efficient at the plate. Though he’s experienced a slight dip in walk rate, he’s drastically cut his strikeouts. His previous mark of 21.7 percent has been struck all the way down to 13.1 percent. When looking at his plate discipline statistics from Pitch Info, we can spot the changes. His O-Swing rate has dropped two percentage points, but resulted in a 6.7 percentage point increase in O-Contact rate. He also is swinging at more pitches in the zone by a 3.8 percentage point margin, but his contact rate there dropped from 92.1 percent to 90.9 percent. Overall, his contact rate has jumped to 84.4 percent from 82.6 percent. So, he’s offering at less pitches out of the zone, but doing more with them and also swinging at better pitches.
Merrifield may not be a star, but this version of himself is a very solid MLB contributor. At 28, the Royals may have found a somewhat long term second baseman, which is a position that has evaded them at times.
Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Stats Intern at Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.