Whit is a Hit

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Baseball might just be the best sport when it comes to stories that grab us and give us the belief that if you try hard enough anything can happen. You’ve heard the stories before; the player who toils in the minors for years on end before finally getting their shot at the ‘Big Show'(not the wrestler; that is a whole other article) while producing at such a high level that was never thought possible. Many Kansas City Royals fans remember Mike Aviles, who stormed on the scene in 2008 and ended up finishing 4th that year in the American League Rookie of the Year vote. Aviles has never quite reached those same heights since then, but he has turned it into a successful baseball career as a backup utility player. Eight years later, it looks like Whit Merrifield is looking to improve on what Aviles did all those years ago.

MLB: Game two-Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

This is not only a great feel good story, but I could almost say I foreshadowed part of this with my article about Whit during Spring Training. The funny part is during the spring, Whit was mainly just thought of as a backup, someone who could fill in anywhere on the field and would be used as more of an insurance piece than an actual part of the lineup. There was a belief by some that Whit had earned a spot on the roster when the team broke camp, but unfortunately he was sent back to Omaha to start the year in AAA. Luckily, there is always a need for a guy who can play 3/4 of the position’s on the field and Merrifield got the call to the majors on May 18th. The initial thought was that Whit would be a backup infielder mostly, as he took the roster spot of infielder Christian Colon. But the stars must have been aligned for Merrifield, as four days later Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas collided in foul territory during a game against the White Sox, eventually leading to both being placed on the disabled list. Between the Royals injuries piling up and Omar Infante’s disappearing act(62 OPS+ so far this year, which is actually an improvement over 2015) led to more playing time for Whit. Boy, has he taken advantage of it!

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So far in 22 games, Merrifield has played second base, third base and left field, with manager Ned Yost saying recently that he would see the majority of his time at second base, unofficially supplanting Infante from the starting job. The solid defense at second isn’t a big shocker(the most errors in one season at 2B in the minors has been 5, if you are into that sort of thing. He also has 3 defensive runs saved already for Kansas City) but the bat has been a bit of a surprise. So far this year he is hitting .330/.344/.484with a wRC+(weighted runs created, basically accumulating all offensive production and is park adjusted) of 123 and 0.8 fWAR. I think we all tend to think that some of this is sustainable and some of it will regulate itself. But which stats should we believe in when it comes to Merrifield, and which should we hold off on?

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Let’s start with the average and on base percentage. I think both of those should still hold up fairly well, although I can’t imagine Whit would hit in the .330 range all year long. If you look at his line during his seven seasons in the minors, he hit .274/.334/.399. The batting average and on base are very respectable numbers and I would tend to lean toward those being about what Kansas City should expect from him. The slugging percentage is down from what he is producing right now, but Whit has never been known for his power numbers. Merrifield has only hit 40 career minor league homers, which is slightly less than 6 a season if you average it out. But while he probably won’t give you many long balls, he might just rack up a nice amount of doubles. Whit has hit 161 career doubles during his time in the minors, averaging about 23 a year. But only going back to 2014, he put together a 41 double season, which is very impressive. Kauffman Stadium could elevate his amount of doubles hit, if he is able to take advantage of the gaps in the huge outfield at ‘The K’.

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Merrifield also currently has a .412 batting average on balls in play. This just seems highly implausible to sustain, as there would have to be a certain amount of luck involved. This could also change if he starts making more contact, although an 84% contact rate isn’t too bad. The 19 strikeouts worries me a bit, since that almost equals one per game, but the more time he spends in the majors the more likely he is to lower that, especially if Dale Sveum gets ahold of him. You can also chalk up 3 stolen bases so far, which I like. I can see many a hit and run used when Whit is on base and he actually does have decent speed(just for note, he did pile on 32 stolen bases last year during his time in Omaha). Whit has looked like a good fit at the top of the Royals lineup, giving them a guy who can get on base and also supply some speed to go with it.

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One more item I want to look at with Whit; exit velocity. Merrifield started out hot for the Royals upon his promotion and they also seemed to catch him at a good time, as he was smoking the ball early on:

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It’s obvious to see the drop, falling from above the 94 MPH line to below league average this past week. I tend to think he would average himself out, where on average his exit velocity would be sitting in 90-92 MPH range. Merrifield has a very nice, compact swing with very little movement which I think helps him make solid contact on a regular basis. This will be something to follow over the next few weeks, as he continues to see regular playing time and gets more comfortable at the big league level.

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The comparisons have been flying when it comes to Merrifield and most of them feel fairly accurate. I’ve seen the Willie Bloomquist comp, which I tend to think might be the closest comparison you can make with Whit. Ryan Lefebvre mentioned over the weekend that at the plate he looked a lot like former Rangers infielder Michael Young, and I totally see that when he is batting. I’ve often referred to him as a “Poor Man’s Ben Zobrist”, mainly for his ability to play all over the diamond but apparently I wasn’t too far off; when he was scouted back in college, scouts wrote Zobrist’s name in the report as a similar player. No matter the comparison, what you can say for a fact is that Merrifield has looked like a million bucks so far in Kansas City and it’s hard not to root for the guy who made his big league debut at 27 years old. Logic tells us that there will be a regression on Whit’s part but it’s hard not to think ‘what if?’ when it comes to him keeping up this pace. Even if Whit ends up being the next Mike Aviles or has a career like Willie Bloomquist, is that such a bad thing? Both have ended up with long careers and have contributed as steady backups. But that is possibly the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that Merrifield becomes a super utility starter that floats around for the team wherever is needed. Either scenario is a respectable one for a guy who has fought hard to get to this point. It has taken Merrifield seven years to get to the majors and by the way he is playing he doesn’t want to go back anytime soon. He might not be the ‘Royals Offensive Savior’ that he is playing like now but he is a guy who should be able to hold down a major league roster spot. Now doesn’t seem like the right time to bet against Whit Merrifield. All he will do is prove everyone wrong.

FLASHBACK: The Curse of Buddy Biancalana

Author’s Note: The Flashback articles on here I originally wrote for the website royalsbaseball.net. That website has now become defunct, so I thought I would move them over here to Bleeding Royal Blue. I’d like to thank Joel Matheny for giving me the opportunity to write for his website, even if it was for just a few months. So enjoy, and go Royals!

buddy bMany a Major League baseball team have that one position they are constantly looking to upgrade. For whatever reason, they can’t seem to find stability and are stuck every few years finding someone else to take over that spot and hope they finally have found that player who will be there for years to come. Over the years, The Royals have gone through countless players at Shortstop and none ever seem to stick. Why exactly is shortstop a black hole for Kansas City?

patekIt wasn’t always like that. Back in the offseason of 1970, the Royals acquired a little known Shortstop by the name of Fred Patek from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Patek was not the tallest man alive(5’5″, some even say 5’4″)but Patek was like a hoover on the field. Patek was a three time All-Star with Kansas City and even finished sixth in the MVP voting back in 1971. Patek would end up being a vital cog for the Royals as they made 3 playoff appearances in the mid-to late 70’s. Former Royals manager and Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog once said about Patek that he was  “the best artificial turf shortstop he ever managed”, ranking him even higher than Ozzie Smith. Patek would leave the Royals at the end of the 1979 season, signing with the California Angels.  Alas, him leaving began the Royals carousel of revolving Shortstops.

ULPatek’s leaving left the spot open, and in slid UL Washington. Washington had been with Kansas City for a few years as a backup infielder and was going to finally get a chance to show what he could do. Washington had great speed, and was yet another success of the Royals Baseball Academy, a program that also netted them Frank White. Washington was above the league average in batting those first few years, and combined solid defense with excellent baserunning to give the Royals another weapon in their lineup. Washington had a career year in 1982 after coming back from injury, and it looked as if the Royals had their Shortstop for the near future. In 1983 UL slumped badly and injuries ruined his 1984 season, as Onix Concepcion had made his way into the lineup. After the 1984 season, Washington was dealt to the Montreal Expos.

Concepcion took over the job in 1984, and was the starter for most of 1985. Not happy with his play, Royals manager Dick Howser replaced him with rookie Buddy Biancalana, and Biancalana would finish not only the season as the starter, but would start all 14 playoff games for KC that season. Biancalana was inserted in the lineup more for his defense, but his offense in the playoffs was a big boost for the ballclub. His funny name even brought mentions on the David Letterman show, and eventually an appearance on Late Night. Buddy would come back to reality in 1986, hitting .242 in 100 games, although providing solid defense. By 1987 the Royals had traded Biancalana to the Astros and was out of the big leagues by the end of the next season.

stillwell_11Now, I joke about the curse of Royals Shortstops being on Biancalana’s head. Whether it was bad judgement or just plain bad luck, the Royals would continue to go through Shortstops throughout the next decade. The player that seemed to have the best shot of longevity for the Royals was one Kurt Stillwell. Stillwell was acquired from the Reds after the 1987 season, as the Royals parted way with lefthander Danny Jackson. The Reds had a logjam at Shortstop, as another youngster was ready for the bigs at the point. Some guy named Barry Larkin…ever heard of him? So Stillwell became the starter at Short and after injuries hit a few All-Stars, was an American League All-Star in 1988. Stillwell showed flashes of greatness at Shortstop, and would have streaks at the plate where it seemed he was really starting to advance, only to have equally as down periods. 1990 seemed to start off as Stillwell’s coming out party, hitting .386 in April and was still over .300
in June. Unfortunately, injuries hampered him the rest of the year and could only hit .205. In 1991, Kurt would get off to another hot start, but by Independence Day he was mired in another slump and manager Hal McRae ended up benching Stillwell. Kurt was not very fond of his new manager, and after the season wrapped up, Stillwell, still only 26 at this point, packed up and headed to San Diego. Later Kurt would say his relationship with McRae, or lack of one, sent him on his way, and alas another Shortstop for the Royals was out the door after only 4 years.

Over the next few years, a number of players tried to solidify the position, only to leave earlier than expected. Greg Gagne, Jose Offerman, Jay Bell and Rey Sanchez are just a few of the players who occupied the position. Most were solid players, but none were long term solutions.

berroaThat seemed to all change in 2003. Rookie Angel Berroa was handed the Shortstop job and seemed to be the future of this organization. Berroa had a rocky start to the season, but by years end his defense seemed to get better and his hitting had more than improved. Berroa hit .287 that season with 17 Homeruns,  73 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. Berroa would win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, being only the fourth Royal to accomplish such a feat. Things went downhill from there on. Season by season, Berroa seemed to regress more and more, especially defensively, as his error rate was the highest in the Majors during that period. Angel also seemed lost at the plate, not seeming to have any real gameplan and flailing at pitches out of the strike zone. Finally in 2007, the Royals acquired Tony Pena Jr. from Atlanta, and Berroa was sent to the minor leagues. Outside of nine games that season, Berroa spent the rest of his time in AAA Omaha. 2008
started the same way and on June 6th was traded to the Dodgers.

tony_pena_jr_2008_04_13Pena wasn’t the answer here either. As much as Pena was a good fielder, he couldn’t hit worth a lick. By mid-2008, Pena was out and in stepped Mike Aviles. Aviles was finally getting his shot in the Bigs, and he took advantage of it. Aviles ended the season hitting  .325 in 102 games, with 10 home runs and 51 RBI’s. Aviles’ season was so good that the Royals named him their 2008 Player of the Year. Aviles, unfortunately, would suffer an arm injury playing winter ball, and be forced to miss most of the 2009 season due to Tommy John surgery. Whatever it was that Aviles had in 2008, he never seemed to catch it again. Aviles split 2010 between Omaha and the Majors, but mainly as a backup. Mike started the 2011 season at Third Base for KC but never got going and was traded to Boston at the end of July. I was always an Aviles fan and really hoped that he would end up breaking the curse. Unfortunately, Mike Aviles was not meant to be that guy.

YuniWhen it became apparent in 2009 that Aviles would be gone for the foreseeable future, the Royals acquired Yuniesky Betancourt from the Seattle Mariners. Betancourt went from being one of the better defensive Shortstop’s in the game early in his career to a plodding Shortstop with no range by the time he appeared in Kansas City. Betancourt brought a little pop in his bat as well, and to be honest, at the time it wasn’t like there was a better option for the team either on the roster or in the minors.  In 2009, he had the lowest on base percentage of any starter in the major leagues, at .274, and the lowest slugging percentage in the American League with .351. His numbers did improve in 2010, but he still was a liability on both defense and offense. Yuni obviously wasn’t the long term answer.

In the winter of 2010, the Royals would acquire their current Shortstop, trading Ace pitcher Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to the Milwaukee Brewers for Alcides Escobar and three youngsters. Escobar showed last season why he was a good commodity, flashing great defense at Shortstop. After the Berroa/Betancourt years, it was good to see a Shortstop with a great glove. Escobar even earned the nickname “Shortstop Jesus” by Royals fans. Escobar struggled with the bat, although he seemed to hit better as the season went on. By the time it was all said and done, Escobar hit .254 for the Royals, and some experts predict he could hit as high .269 this upcoming season.His defense though, is why he is in the starting lineup. Any offense is just an addition to his amazing play on the diamond.

EskySo is Escobar the one to break the curse? Time will only tell, but if Alcides can hit even in the .260 range, he seems like a good fit for the position for many a year. He was a .300 hitter in the minors, so it is possible. One thing is for certain; luck has not been on the Royals side when finding a Shortstop all these years. For them to break the curse, they need both good judgement and good luck…and maybe a guy who stands only 5’5″. Hey, it worked before!

Wednesday Notes-10/24/12

I decided last night to start a regular notes column, most likely on Wednesdays. This way I can take a look at things going on around baseball each week and cover as much ground as possible. So without further ado(and much procrastination), here are your Wednesday notes.

Two perfectly normal relievers…

Tonight is Game One of the 2012 World Series, as the Detroit Tigers will be taking on the San Francisco Giants. Most experts are predicting the Tigers to come out on top, as their pitching has been superb this postseason with a potent offense. Far be it from me to doubt the Cyborg Verlander, but my gut is telling me to not doubt the Giants. They have been the underdogs throughout the playoffs, coming back from the edge of elimination during both the NLDS and the NLCS. They even came back from being down 3-1 against the Cardinals to punch their ticket to the World Series. The only other time it’s happened? The 1985 playoffs by the eventual champion Kansas City Royals. Yes, they did it against the Cardinals that year in the Fall Classic. Game 7 the other night was oddly reminiscent of another Game 7, of that same 1985 World Series. For anyone who doesn’t know, in that game the Cardinals veered off the rails and the Royals routed them in classic fashion. Joaquin Andujar blew a gasket that game, demolishing a toilet in the locker room while Whitey Herzog was ran up by the umpires while his Red Birds choked in epic fashion. I almost expected Andujar to make an appearance Monday night, being carried off the field by Cardinals enabler Mike Matheny. Alas, it didn’t happen but we still got our rout of the Cardinals. Anyway, back to my point, which I lost while reminiscing about the Royals actually winning meaningful games. The Giants have defied the odds all season, so it doesn’t seem right to doubt them now. They have three characteristics that any winning team needs: they know how to win, they are clutch and they have heart. They are also unorthodox, but that isn’t as normal as the other items. This Giants team has pitching, way better defense than the Tigers, and are clutch. So don’t count this Bay Area bunch out just yet. So here goes: my prediction is the Giants in 7.

Storybook Scutaro

Probably the best acquisition before the trade deadline this year is the Giants getting second baseman Marco Scutaro from the Rockies. Scutaro had been traded in the offseason by the Red Sox to Colorado, where he just languished with the under performing Rockies. The Giants needed a middle infielder, and they hit gold with Scutaro. Scutaro caught fire and hit .362 in 61 games for the Giants, solidifying the top of the order after Melky Cabrera was suspended(ie. played the part of a big dummy). Scutaro hasn’t stopped as he is now the MVP of the NLCS and headed to the World Series. All this from a guy who didn’t even make the majors until he was almost 27. He has had to fight his entire career, so this is no different. Scutaro is a guy you cheer for, a guy who has to work twice as hard as everyone else. If you needed another reason to root for the Giants, I just gave you one.

Even in picture I can hear Ozzie cussing.

Yesterday word came down that the Miami Marlins were parting ways with manager Ozzie Guillen after one year. No one should be surprised by this. For one, the Marlins got off to a bad start and never found a real groove. Add in Guillen’s comments about Fidel Castro, less than stellar attendance at their new stadium and his war of words with former closer Heath Bell and it was just a matter of time before Ozzie got the hook. Guillen has always been a very outspoken manager, and this was no different. When Guillen managed the White Sox, I always wondered how his team put up with his show. I mean day after day, it’s Ozzie with permanent diarrhea of the mouth. At some point those players HAVE to just tune him out. Add in owner Jeffrey Loria’s tendency to fire his managers on a whim(just ask Joe Girardi and Fredi Gonzalez about that) and it was just a matter of time until Guillen had his bags thrown out on the lawn. To be perfectly honest, this is the best for the Marlins, and hopefully they make a good hire for manager. I would highly recommend Brad Ausmus, but he doesn’t seem to be interested being in Miami. No matter what, this is a team that needs to rebuild(again) and it might be time for them to hire someone under the radar.

  Boston got their man. John Farrell is the new Red Sox manager, as the team worked out a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays to bring him to Boston. Beantown is not new to Farrell, as he was the pitching coach for years in Boston under former manager Terry Francona. He was well liked in the Boston clubhouse and was a favorite of the players. I think this is great move by Boston and was GM Ben Cherington’s original choice last year, but was outvoted by the Boston owners. Now, the part of this I found interesting was that Toronto’s compensation for Farrell going to Boston is shortstop and former Royal Mike Aviles. I’ve always been an Aviles fan, but Boston just fleeced Toronto. John Farrell will be a good major league manager, while Aviles will be…well, Aviles. Which means he is a solid starter but probably a better fit as a solid backup that can fill in if someone gets injured. I don’t know for sure what Toronto is thinking, but if you are keeping score at home, I believe the score is Boston 1, Toronto 0.

That expression…that is how most Red Sox fans felt this season.

Speaking of the Red Sox, yesterday in an interview, former manager Bobby Valentine continued his scorched earth tour, saying that star hitter David Ortiz decided not to play the rest of the season after their big blockbuster trade with the Dodgers that signaled Boston waving the white flag on the season. Look, I’m not going to go into whether or not I think Ortiz was actually hurt or just gave up. Either way, what is more interesting is that Valentine continues to burn bridges left and right. I get that Valentine was probably blamed for some stuff he had nothing to do with, and was the scorn of a lot of Red Sox fans this past season. I’m sure being the Red Sox manager is a major pressure cooker, but this is just uncalled for. Part of being a manager is to have your players back, and Valentine doing this would make any player think that if he played for Bobby there wouldn’t be that level of trust. Unless that is the point. Maybe Bobby V is done managing. Maybe this was the last straw. If so, it is an awful way to go out. But he also made his own bed. Time to sleep in it.

Wouldn’t he look good in Royal blue?

Finally, I love trade rumors, especially this time of year. So many possibilities that are endless and mostly purely fictional. But there was one floating around last week that interested me. Someone threw out there that the Royals were interested if the Tampa Bay Rays make star pitcher David Price available. It’s no big secret that the Royals main priority this offseason is pitching and the team has no true number one starter on the team. Price would be that, easily. But this got me to thinking. What if the Royals can’t get Price, but would still like some pitching? Tampa has a gluttony of arms, and I can’t see them not being interested in some young talent if the Royals are willing to deal. My choice would be Jeremy Hellickson who has been on my wish list for a couple years now. I would have to think the Royals could scrounge up some prospects that would make the Rays interested. The name bandied about for Price was Billy Butler, which might be a tad high for Hellickson. But let’s be honest here; the Royals need to do something. I can easily see the Royals parting ways with a Butler, Moustakas or Hosmer if it nets them a top of the line starter. I would hate for any of those guys to leave, but to receive talent you have to trade talent. Time will tell, but if Kansas City is smart they will further conversations with the Rays and see if  they work something out. You can only hope it is not a debacle like the Cabrera for Sanchez deal that went down last year.

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