|Whit Merrifield emerges as productive second baseman|
When the Kansas City Royals opened play for the 2017 MLB season, very few prognosticators picked them to be a contender.
The Royals captured back-to-back American League pennants in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. And in 2015, they won the second-ever World Series crown in franchise history. That isn’t all that long ago.
But fortunes of big league mini-dynasties can turn around in a hurry these days. The Royals slipped to a .500 finish a year ago. With the Cleveland Indians on the rise in the AL Central Division, and with an aging homegrown core, the Royals looked like yesterday’s news.
Flash forward a few months, and here we are in the Dog Days of summer. Heading into play on Tuesday, August 8, Kansas City is tied for one of the two American League Wildcard playoff berths. The club also sits just three games behind the Indians in the division.
As the season was set to open back in late March, Royals skipper Ned Yostannounced that then 21-year old Raul Mondesi Jr had won an open battle for the team’s second base position.
The losers in that battle, Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon, and Cheslor Cuthbert, were left to battle for bench roles with the club in the final days of spring training.
PLAYER PERFORMANCES RESULT IN CHANGED PLANS
Merrifield had an option remaining, and so ended up opening the year back with Omaha in the Pacific Coast League. He quickly showed that he could rake AAA pitching. Over 37 plate appearances, he hit for an outstanding .412/.432/.794 slash line with three home runs.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, to say that Mondesi was over-matched would be an understatement. He slashed just .103/.167/.179 over his first 14 games and 46 plate appearances. Mondesi did steal five bases, but he simply wasn’t reaching often enough to make a real difference in that regard.
Into the breach stepped Merrifield. Given an opportunity to start with the big club, he took it and ran. The 28-year old is now hitting .294 over 401 plate appearances. He has 13 homers, 49 RBI, 50 runs scored, and stolen 18 bases. In short, Merrifield has been an unexpected gem for the Royals.
A little over a week after Merrifield took over the job at the Keystone position, Kansas City began to win. Since May 1, the Royals have a 50-38 record.
Rustin Todd of the Kansas City Star noted in a piece earlier this month that the Royals’ vice president for communications, Mike Swanson, was reporting that Merrifield was in rare company.
Per Swanson, Merrifield was just the seventh player in big league history to produce 175 hits, 80 runs, 40 doubles, and 20 stolen bases over the first 162 games of his career.
“With his versatility, there’s a lot of things he can do,” Yost was quoted by Todd. “He can steal a base, he can bunt, he can swing the bat, he hits the ball to all fields. He gives you a good at-bat.”
IMPROVED APPROACH LEADS TO BREAKOUT
Merrifield was Kansas City’s selection in the 10th round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft out of South Carolina. As he rose through the Royals farm system, a strong 2014 season split between AA and AAA was the only sign that he might be more than a big league bench player. At least so far, he has turned out to be so much more.
In a recent piece for Beyond the Box Score, Anthony Rescan broke Merrifield’s success down in a more analytic fashion.
Merrifield’s consistent production has been a key to the turn-around of the Royals lineup. Not once this season has he gone more than two games without producing a hit.
Since the MLB All-Star break, Merrifield has only upped his game, hitting for a .327/.366/.577 slash line and six home runs in that span.
The Royals have surprised many by fighting back into contention here in the 2017 season. However, the club has now dropped six of their last eight games. And they just lost their all-star catcher and team leader Salvador Perez until September.
To stay in the race, Kansas City is going to need their remaining veteran core of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alex Gordon to step up in the lineup. Continued production from Merrifield is also sure to go a long way towards the Royals returning to postseason baseball.