For all the debates, hand-wringing and opprobrium over WAR — the baseball stat, not the other kind — one thing has always been more or less understood. WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is a counting stat, meaning the metric is generally correlated with playing time. To rack up a large number of wins above replacement, one must first be on the field.
Which makes the following all the more impressive: Whit Merrifield has played in just 28 games and started just 27 this season. And according to the WAR formula found at BaseballReference.com, he has been the 34th most valuable player in the American League in 2016.
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Merrifield, a 27-year-old rookie second baseman, has been worth 1.6 bWAR in 28 games. Of the 33 players ahead of him, just four have played in fewer than 60 games. Just two — Tampa Bay’s Logan Forsythe and Kevin Kiermaier — have played in fewer than 40. Forsythe has been worth 2.1 bWAR in 39 games. Kiermaier, a defensive savant in center field, has been worth 1.7 bWAR in 38.
Houston’s Jose Altuve and Toronto’s Josh Donaldson are tied for first in the AL at 3.8 bWAR. Baltimore’s Manny Machado (3.7) is third, while Los Angeles’ Mike Trout (3.6) is fourth.
Here, of course, we can note the usual caveats for WAR, which attempts to quantify a player’s total contributions to his team. The formula includes defensive metrics that can often be unreliable in small sample sizes. The number also includes a positional adjustment that favors certain positions.
Which is why some might dismiss the idea that, according to bWAR, Merrifield has been more valuable than Eric Hosmer (1.4 WAR) in 2016.
One reason: Hosmer has been worth -0.9 defensive wins above replacement. Merrifield, meanwhile, has been worth 0.8 dWAR in 28 games.
Looking at the numbers through the prism of Merrifield and Hosmer, you can perhaps take them with a few handfuls of salt. But still, it’s hard to argue that Merrifield hasn’t been one of the more valuable Royals in 2016. In 28 games, Merrifield has recorded more WAR than former second baseman Omar Infante did from the start of 2014 to the present. In 28 games, Merrifield has jumped into the thick of the Rookie of the Year race in the American League.
First, let’s look at where he ranks among the Royals. Entering Tuesday’s two-game set against the New York Mets, Merrifield was batting .333/.350/.483, piling up 14 extra-base hits and 21 runs scored in 28 games. If there is another surprise on the list, it’s Paulo Orlando, who caught fire over the last home stand and raised his average to .353 with 11 hits in his last 20 at-bats.
Meanwhile, here is where Merrifield ranks among American League rookies.
Whit Merrifield, KC
Nomar Mazara, Texas
Dae-ho Lee, Sea
Byung-ho Park, Min
Hyun Soo Kim, Balt.
Mazara, a 21-year-old right fielder, has hit .292/.336/.449 with 11 homers, five doubles in 62 games, emerging as an early favorite in the Rookie of the Year voting. His defense, however, has graded out as close to average, which has allowed Merrifield to pass him in bWAR in the last week.
At some point, of course, Merrifield will likely stop hitting .333. He has struck out 23 times while drawing just three walks. He is likely due for some regression. And yet, in half the playing time, he has been one of the best rookies in the American League. With 93 games left, he will have an opportunity to make his case.