What does Whit Merrifield need to do to gain respect?
The Rodney Dangerfield of second basemen has been taken lightly since his 2016 debut. Even after a breakout 2017 season, many experts keep waiting for the late bloomer to come back to earth. In response, Merrifield was even better in 2018, leading the major leagues in both hits and stolen bases.
Even Merrifield understands his reputation as a “fluke” player.
Whit Merrifield enters the final day of the season tied for the major-league lead in hits (191) and leading the majors in stolen bases (44).— Rustin Dodd (@rustindodd) September 30, 2018
"That would be pretty exciting," he said. "To do it in the whole league would be a thrill, especially after having a fluke year last year."
Much of the doubt probably comes from the fact that he debuted at age 27 and had his breakout season the following year, at age 28. That’s not a normal path to success in baseball, which makes it even less likely that a player will become one of the best at his position at such a late age. While critics wait for Merrifield to turn back into a pumpkin, though, he’s done just that.
Over the last two seasons, one could argue the only second baseman better than Merrifield was Jose Altuve. Using Fangraphs and sorting by second basemen with qualified at bats, Merrifield ranks fourth by fWAR.
That list, however includes players like Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez. While Ramirez did play second base during the 2017-2018 campaigns, he played the bulk of his time at third base. There were 19 players on the Fangraphs batting leader board for second basemen. To get a more proper representation, I decided to boot those who didn’t also qualify among fielding leaders for those two seasons, which eliminated seven players, including Ramirez and Javier Baez. I’ll leave Baez in this comparison, however, since he does split a lot of time between between shortstop and second base.
We now have 13 players with a qualifying number of at bats who played second base pretty much full-time.
Ranking 2017-18 Second Basemen by fWAR
As you can see, ranked by fWAR, Merrifield slots in third, just behind Jed Lowrie. Neither come close to Altuve, which is no surprise. Baez is just behind Merrifield, and with a world of talent at age 25, will likely pass Merrifield and Lowrie soon enough. Baez may wind up as a full-time shortstop, though, so I’m going to argue that—for the time being—Merrifield is actually the second best player at his position despite what fWAR tells us.
By breaking down fWAR even more, into offensive and defensive runs above average, we get a better idea of where Merrifield and Lowrie get their fWAR value. Lowrie gets the nod defensively, with an edge of 9.3 to 2.6 runs above average. Offensively, things swing back Merrifield’s way (barely) with a 32.8 to 32.2 edge.
There are a couple of components, though, that lean heavily towards Merrifield. Base running, of course, being a big one. Looking again at runs above average (BsR), Merrifield has a big advantage. Of the 13 players we’re comparing here, Merrifield trails only Dee Gordon in this category. Merrifield’s BsR is 11.9, while Lowrie’s -1.2 is a little below average. Merrifield, in fact, has the 8th highest BsR in all of baseball, regardless of position.
Taking another look at defense and measuring by DRS, Merrifield again picks up an edge, ranking fourth overall with 13 runs saved at second base. Lowrie is again just below average here with -1 DRS. Looking at the last two seasons individually, much of Lowrie’s 9.3 defensive runs above average came in an outstanding 2018 where he was well above his usual number.
Judging by the numbers, next year’s battle for runner-up to Altuve will probably come down to Merrifield and Baez, unless he becomes the Cubs’ everyday shortstop in 2019.
Maybe a successful 2019 will finally earn Merrifield some respect. It’s long overdue.