Regression Candidate: Whit Merrifield
Each week I’ll be looking in to a regression candidate at each position. These are going to be more of a stat based, analytical deep dive on a specific player. The projections next to the player names are an average of THE BAT, ATC, Steamer, and ZIPS projection systems found on Fangraphs. NFBC ADP data is from the date range 2/01/2019-02/19/2019. 2017 or 2018? Which one is Whit?
Whit Merrifield, KC (ADP 29): 652 PA, 81 R, 13 HR, 63 RBI, 32 SB, .280/.335/.419/.754
Merrifield has been a late-blooming, breakout star for the Royals during the past two seasons. In 2017, his age 28 season, Whit hit .288/.324/.460/.784 with 19 HR and 34 SB. He followed that up by slashing .304/.367/.438/.806 with 12 HR and 45 SB in ‘18. These numbers appeared to come out of nowhere because he didn’t have prospect pedigree and was relatively old for a player with his MLB experience.
It’s important to look at his stats from 2015 and 2016 before concluding that it was a random breakout. In 2015, he stole 32 bases in AAA and in 2016 he stole 28 between AAA and MLB. More impressively, he hit .283 after getting called up to the big leagues in ‘16. He was clearly an improving player and while the full breakout couldn’t have been predicted, there were signs of things to come. Let’s further dig into his two full big league seasons. There were some clear changes in approach for Merrifield between the two seasons and I think they give us a hint as to what he’ll be in 2019.
In 2017 Merrifield had a:
40.5% fly ball rate, 9.4% HR/FB%, 30.6% hard hit rate, a 4.6% walk rate, and a .308 BABIP
In 2018 his numbers in those categories were:
35.3% FB%, 6.5% HR/FB% , 36.9% Hard%, 8.6% BB% and .352 BABIP
Ok, great, but what does all of this mean? Merrifield gave back some power because he hit less fly balls. He turned those FB (plus 3% grounders) into line drives. He also hit the ball much harder in 2018, taking all the Hard% gains from the Medium% category. This is important because balls hit with a medium hit rate have the lowest BABIP outcomes. So hitting more line drives, harder, led to a .304 batting average instead of a .288. Couple that with the walk rate growth and you’ve got enough OBP to fuel 45 steals. Yes, he had a high, likely unsustainable BABIP in 2019, but there were concrete reasons as to why. He’s also one of the fastest players in baseball, only helping his cause.
This clear change in approach for Merrifield has me believing that the 2018 season is more representative of the player he is. If he continues to grow his BB%, there could be even more stolen base upside. He’s on one of the worst teams in baseball, so his runs and RBI numbers will likely suffer; but I don’t see Merrifield regressing in 2019, because of the clear skills growth he’s shown. Due to the scarcity of stolen base in baseball today, I prefer the player he was in 2018. How about you?