Whit Merrifield was the third second baseman used by the Kansas City Royals in 2016, but a strong start to his rookie campaign may help him maintain a lock at the position for the foreseeable future.
The 2010 draft pick, who spent more than six seasons in a once-crowded Royals farm system, was recalled to replace Christain Colon on May 18, less than a week before a season-ending injury to Mike Moustakas. Despite shuffling into action at third base and left field initially, Merrifield has received ten consecutive starting opportunities as the Royals second baseman and leadoff hitter en rout to a.321 batting average, 21 runs and a 1.4 WAR in less than two months of action.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been fun and it’s nice to make a good first impression,” said Merrifield. “I know I’m with an organization that played in the World Series the past two years, and it’s been incredible playing at the K this first month and a half.”
Merrifield’s 18-game hitting streak at Kauffman Stadium is the longest by a rookie at home since Rocco Baldelli collected a hit in his first 20 home games in 2003. He has hit safely in 31 of his first 33 starts with the Royals, including 14 multi-hit efforts, to push to the third-highest OBP (.345) among rookies with at least 125 at-bats.
“Anytime you get more at bats, it’s going to build a good comfort level,” said Merrifield. “I try to approach every at bat by putting the barrel on the ball as hard as I can, and I’m taking advantage of the pitches I’m seeing.”
Merrifield said hurlers have not been approaching him differently since his first MLB at-bat, which involved a cutter and changeup from David Price. Although Merrifield has made contact on nine different pitches, two-seam and four-seam have accounted for over half of Merrifield’s 45 hits. The rookie has averaged an average bat speed of 92.5 mph on two-seam and four-seam pitches, leading to the best fastball runs above average rating (5.4) on Kansas City aside from Eric Hosmer per Fangraphs.
More importantly, the 27-year old’s versatility and athleticism have been overshadowed by his quick offensive adjustments. Co-leading the Royals with 12 runs scored in June, Merrifield has contributed to Kansas City’s small ball environment by legging out 13 extra base hits and four stolen bases. The second baseman has played part in 19 Royals double plays, along with a .986 fielding percentage overall.
“Whit has done a really good job for us, both offensively and defensively,” said Royals manager Ned Yost. He had a huge hit and run tonight. He’s just done a really good job, and he has come in and really taken control of the leadoff spot.”
Over the past two weeks, Merrifield has matched up against four former All-Star second basemen in the likes of Matt Carpenter, Jose Altuve, Ian Kinsler and Jason Kipnis. By playing against such talent, Merrifield has learned to maintain a patient approach in his first year of Major League action.
“I just take it one day at a time,” said Merrifield. “I look at the opportunity today, and do my best to stay [in the lineup] tomorrow.”