On Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, Whit Merrifield saw an 84 mph slider from reliever Jonathan Holder and lashed a solo homer over the short porch in right-center field.
Coming in a 6-2 victory, the blast was one of four homers hit by the Royals in the seventh and eighth innings. Yet when the debris had cleared, it represented one of the more intriguing developments in this 2017 season. One season after clubbing two homers in 81 games during a solid rookie campaign, Merrifield, a 6-foot, 195-pound second baseman, has cranked five homers in his first 29 games since returning from Class AAA Omaha.
Merrifield, 28, has never hit more than 10 home runs in any professional season. He’s recorded 46 homers in 725 career minor-league games. But as the Royals prepared for the final two games here in New York, Merrifield remained on pace for one of the most power-laden seasons by a second baseman in club history. With five homers through the Royals’ first 45 games, he was on pace for 18 homers, which would be the most by a Kansas City second baseman since Frank White hit 22 in 1986. If you account for his late start, Merrifield would be tracking for close to 20. Not that Merrifield is surprised by the output.
“If I can put together a good stretch of taking advantage of mistakes, I don’t think there’s any doubt I could hit 15 to 20 homers,” Merrifield said.
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In addition to the five homers with the Royals this year, Merrifield also hit three for Class AAA Omaha. He credits an offseason regimen that has helped him add 20 pounds to his frame over the last two winters. The major transformation came in the months before the 2016 season. On quiet days back in North Carolina, Merrifield gorged on seven meals per day, a protein-heavy diet that accompanied multiple workouts at a gym near his home. The additional bulk and strength paid off with his first taste of the major leagues last season. He maintained the routine last winter.
When he drove an opposite-field home run into the right-field bullpen against Giants starter Matt Cain on April 18, Merrifield’s first day back in the majors, he considered the moment proof that the regimen was worth it.
“I’ve hit that ball a lot in my career,” Merrifield said. “A lot of times, it’s been a right fielder going back, or maybe even a double over his head. But the fact that it got out almost validates all the hard work I’ve put in this offseason, trying to get stronger.”
At the macro level, Merrifield’s offensive performance has slightly improved in 2017. The formula, however, has been difference. In 2016, after finally reaching the big leagues, he batted .283 with a .323 on-base percentage and a .716 on-base plus slugging, finishing with 22 doubles, three triples and two homers in 81 games. The performance earned him plaudits and a likely spot on the roster in 2017. But the calculus changed when Raul Mondesi tore the cover off the ball during spring training and the Royals opted to keep infielder Christian Colon, who was out of options.
A few weeks later, the Royals pulled the plug on Mondesi, recognizing a mistake. And Merrifield returned, ready to log time at second base and make occasional starts all over the diamond.
In 29 games, Merrifield’s batting average has dipped to .257; after the homer against Cain, he suffered through an early slump. He is also getting on base at a slightly lesser clip (.307), and he has just one double. But the increase in slugging has increased his overall value. Merrifield said he sees no reason the trend can’t continue.
“I just feel like I’ve made four swings on four pitches that I should hit,” Merrifield said Tuesday, before his fifth homer. “And they just happened to get in the air and get out.”
For now, Merrifield appears locked in as the regular second baseman. In addition to the increased power, he remains a terror on left-handing pitching. In two seasons, he has posted a .414 on-base percentage against lefties. He entered Wednesday ranked 10th in the American League among second basemen in Weighted Runs Created Plus, an advanced metric that measures total offensive value. He has adjusted his swing at times, moving from a one-handed finish to a two-handed follow-through — before going back to a one-handed finish in recent weeks. Merrifield said he uses the two-handed finish it feels like he might be starting to release his top hand too early. Either swing, he said, can generate the power to drive balls out of the ballpark.
“Every hitter will tell you, throughout the course of a game, or perhaps every other game, there’s a pitch that they missed that they should have driven,” he said. “For me, it’s just not missing them. If I hit it, I have enough pop to hit it out anywhere at any park.”
On Tuesday, he stood near his locker and recalled the pitches that had turned into homers over the last five weeks. He hit a fastball from Tampa Bay’s Jake Odorizzi. He drove a similar pitch against New York’s Michael Pineda. He put a barrel on a low sinker from Minnesota reliever Brandon Kintzler. Before his homer on Tuesday, his previous two blasts had traveled 428 feet and 430 feet, respectively, evidence of the power that resides in his 6-foot frame. Moments later, a reporter noted distances. Merrifield shrugged.
“I got enough juice,” he said, smiling. “People might not think so, but I got some pop in my bat.”