We’ve never seen a player like Whit Merrifield. Why his rise was years in the making

Whit Merrifield on being consistent and getting better swings on pitches

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield credits consistent swings with helping him to become a better hitter.
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Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield credits consistent swings with helping him to become a better hitter.

The piece of paper was taped to the inside of his locker earlier this summer, a clubhouse prank that served as a statement of sorts. Whit Merrifield showed up to work one day, and there it was. On the front of a wooden cupboard door was a faux advertisement, neatly printed out and sized to 8  1/2 -by-11 paper.

There was Whit Merrifield’s body, set against a black backdrop. There was the Nike Swoosh. There were four words, set off in white lettering:

“We Are All Whitnesses.”

The piece of art had first appeared on Twitter in May, the creation of a Royals fan who goes by the alias Conrad McGorkin. It was inspired by the iconic LeBron James advertising campaign and a thousand fans who had noticed the easy pun. (Whit is like Witness!) The meme pinged around the internet for a few days before Royals starter Danny Duffy, a fan of McGorkin’s Photoshop work, stumbled upon it.

It didn’t take Merrifield, the Royals’ second baseman, long to connect the dots and identify a culprit. And yet, he was kind of stuck. Having such a sign in his own locker, however funny, seemed to represent a level of braggadocio, that seemed kind of weird. Yet he didn’t feel he could toss it out, either. For all his accomplishments this season, for every two-hit game and sensational defensive play, he is still a 28-year-old in his first full major-league season, a plebe in the pecking order of the room.

“I didn’t feel like I could take it down,” Merrifield said, his voice trailing off. “So … yeah.”

Good choice, of course, because here we are, witnesses, all of us. Witness to one of baseball’s most unexpected career breakouts in the last five decades, witness to a minor-league utility man who endured the grind for six years and brushed off the slights, questions and setbacks, witness to one of the best seasons by a Royals second baseman in 30 years.

“Whit made the best of his opportunity,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Now he’s a fixture.”

The story has mesmerized those inside the Royals clubhouse and left rival scouts wondering what they missed. The ascension is among the rarest kind in baseball, an American-born player, known and accessible to every team, taking until age 27 to make the majors and then turning into an immediate standout.

“He’s had to persevere,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.

Seven years ago, Merrifield was drafted in the ninth round out of South Carolina. Two years ago, he was available to any team in baseball in the Rule 5 draft, but there were no takers. Entering this week, he was batting .288 with 17 homers and 29 doubles. He ranked third among major-league second baseman in Wins Above Replacement, second in Defensive Runs Saved, and first in base running, according to FanGraphs’ advanced metrics.

“He’s one of those guys,” said teammate Alex Gordon, “when you add up all the categories — base running, defense, offense, then you start to appreciate the full picture.”

Every day, Merrifield pushes against the established laws of baseball. Useful major-league players are supposed to arrive in their early 20s and go from there. It is the great wonder of this story, one of patience and swing adjustments and an obsessive offseason workout regimen born two winters ago.

With every two-hit game, with every milestone surpassed, it is easy to ask how a baseball industry missed on Whit Merrifield. But dig a little deeper, peel back the layers, and the wonder starts to shift. Maybe there wasn’t anything to miss.

Only 7 major-league players have recorded more than 175 hits, 80 runs, 40 doubles and 20 steals in their first 162 games.

Whit Merrifield 178 H, 83 R, 44 2B, 24 SB, 2016-17 Royals (Age 27-28)

Mookie Betts 178 H, 96 R, 41 2B, 24 SB, 2014-15 Red Sox (Age 21-22)

Hanley Ramirez 189 H, 124 R, 48 2B, 53 SB, 2005 Red Sox, 2006-07 Marlins (Age 21-23)

Vada Pinson 211 H, 136 R, 51 2B, 21 SB, 1958-59 Reds (Age 19-20)

Kiddo Davis 205 H, 118 R, 42 2B, 22 SB, 1926 Yankees, 1932 Phillies, 1933 Giants (Age 24, 30-31)

Roy Johnson 213 H, 133 R, 47 2B, 21 SB, 1929-30 Tigers (Age 26-27)

Kiki Cuyler 219 H, 130 R, 40 2B, 39 SB, 1921-25 Pirates (Age 22-26)

On a morning in late 2015, Whit Merrifield was at home in North Carolina, resting his body and mapping out the most important winter of his career. Yet on a quiet Thursday, he turned his attention to baseball’s Rule 5 draft, taking place 450 miles away in a hotel ballroom in Nashville.

The final event at baseball’s annual Winter Meetings, the Rule 5 draft is one of the sport’s more esoteric affairs. For one morning, teams can draft eligible prospects (read: older) not protected on another club’s 40-man roster. The cost per selection is $50,000. The drafted player must remain on your 25-man roster all season — or be offered back to the original team.

The Rule 5 draft is where players like Merrifield end up. He had spent parts of six seasons in the minor leagues, moving slowly but consistently through the organization. He had just concluded his first full season at Class AAA Omaha, batting .265 with five homers and 32 stolen bases. He was about to turn 27.

In baseball’s prospect ecosystem, he was neither a tantalizing young talent nor a player who had dominated in the minors. He was intriguing filler, but filler nonetheless. He knew what a spot in the Rule 5 draft meant.

“I knew if I got picked,” he said, “I was going to be in the big leagues with somebody.”

As a group of Royals officials arrived inside the ballroom at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, they had their doubts. In the weeks before the draft, they had held the usual meetings, discussing which players to protect. Scouts offered opinions. The organization’s analytics department ran numbers on prospects, looking for hidden value. Merrifield wasn’t among the standouts. The Royals figured other clubs would see the same.

“What is Whit Merrifield?” Moore asked a room of scouts and talent evaluators.

He was versatile. That was certain. He was athletic. He was a utility player who did not play shortstop. One rival scout from the National League liked his ability to hit. The scout did not know what position Merrifield could play. The view reflected a consensus in the game.

whit merrifield(2)
Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield completes a double play during a game against Colorado. “He’s one of those guys,” said teammate Alex Gordon, “when you add up all the categories — base running, defense, offense, then you start to appreciate the full picture.” John Sleezer

“You look at the numbers, and you analyze the rosters,” Moore said. “There’s so much that goes into it. But there was not one person in our organization that didn’t believe in Whit.”

And yet, the Royals left Merrifield off their 40-man roster and exposed him to every other team in the game. As the picks began, they hoped he would sneak through. Two rounds and 16 selections later, the draft was over. Merrifield went unpicked.

The results of the draft validated the analysis. In the moment, the front office made the correct decision. Yet in time, they would realize: They almost made a painful mistake.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Merrifield said.

Disappointed by being left off the roster, Merrifield formulated a plan for the most important offseason of his career. In the winter before the 2016 season, he spent his days sweating at Torque Performance, a gym near his home. He supplemented grueling sessions with a fanatical diet. For breakfast, he plowed through a plate of nine eggs and hot oatmeal. For lunch, he inhaled three servings of chicken, rice and vegetables. After snacking on an occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he offered himself a treat for dinner: a piece of red meat.

The mission was to put 20 pounds on his 170-pound frame, to add the one element that his game lacked: power.

In six seasons in the minors, Merrifield had built a reputation as a heady player and a gamer. It’s easy to hear the words “gritty ballplayer” and think of it as a pejorative, says Royals reliever Scott Alexander, a minor-league teammate. But to those who saw Merrifield then, he was simply the “best pure baseball player” on every team, Alexander says.

Managers raved about his instincts, speed and versatility. The Royals’ player development staff slowly realized what they had. In 2014, Merrifield advanced to Class AAA Omaha for the first time and batted .340 in 76 games. The next season, assistant general manager J.J. Picollo traveled to Omaha to see his progress. In those months, he said, he started envisioning how Merrifield could help the major-league club.

By then, Merrifield was already 26. He had watched the Royals go to the World Series the year before and then steamroll their way through the postseason in 2015. He would rip two line drive hits off a starting pitcher at Triple-A and watch that pitcher have success in the big leagues, he says. For once, he felt close.

“I think I’d have gotten to the big leagues with just about anybody else in those years,” Merrifield said. “But it just so happened there wasn’t really room here.”

There was one easy knock against him. He had hit just 35 homers in six years, never hitting more than nine in one season, slugging above .400 just twice. He had trained himself to see a fastball on the outside corner and smash the pitch the other way. But the result was usually a double that bounced at the warning track. So in the months after the 2015 season, before the Rule 5 draft, Merrifield desired more strength. He also sought to tweak his swing with the help of his father, Bill, a former collegiate star at Wake Forest and minor-league slugger.

whit merrifield
Entering this week, the Whit Merrifield was batting .288 with 17 homers and 29 doubles, including this homer against Tampa Bay that ended the Royals’ 45-inning scoring drought. John Sleezer

A student of mechanics, Merrifield loved to study the swings of other players, such as Mike Trout or Jose Altuve. He believed a small change could unlock more power, so he ditched his old two-handed finish and incorporated a top-hand release into his swing, seeking greater extension and more backspin.

For months, he honed the change. In February, he packed for spring training. Armed with an altered swing, and packing 20 additional pounds onto his 6-foot frame, he batted .347 with two homers and five doubles in 25 games. A breakout star of camp, he showcased his versatility and earned praise from his manager. When the season began, the he learned another hard lesson: Still not on the 40-man roster, he was headed back to Omaha.

The moment stung. Merrifield tried to maintain a positive outlook.

“As long as I was in the minor leagues, and I was playing every day, and I felt like they believed in me still, my attitude was fine,” Merrifield said. “I still felt like I was going to get my shot.”

Of course, it wasn’t the first time Merrifield had to be patient.

Only in professional sports could an extraordinarily talented athlete, blessed with consistent speed and world-class hand-eye coordination, be christened a scrappy underdog. Only when stacked up against the superhuman specimens that occupy a big-league clubhouse could Merrifield, the son of a minor-league baseball player and a college tennis standout, be considered the Royals’ equivalent of Rudy. Yet Merrifield embraces the role, if only because he’s used to it by now.

Inside the clubhouse, veteran teammate Brandon Moss teases him about his lack of calf muscles. Of course, in data released by MLB in June, Merrifield ranked as the third-fastest second baseman in baseball this season, covering a remarkable 28.6 feet per second on the bases at top speed. Off the field, Merrifield can offer a nondescript quality, 6 feet tall with short, dark hair that would look at home at an accounting firm. Yet he is skilled enough to have started at five different defensive positions as a rookie.

Merrifield has tools — the common baseball parlance for talent — that are not apparent right away. But the tools, Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz says, are heightened by his mind and approach. Take his legs. On the basic 20-to-80 scouting scale, Merrifield’s speed grades out at 55, or well above average, according to the Royals’ internal evaluation. But when you add in instincts and pure hustle, he turns into a 70 base runner, something closer to elite. The intangible package, Kuntz says, reminds him of former Royals outfielder Mitch Maier, another player with an off-the-charts baseball IQ.

“The passion for the game and to get better is the thing that drives them,” Kuntz said. “And they can find little things to help.”

For Merrifield, the chip on his shoulder formed early. When he turned 11 years old, his father, Bill, rounded up a group of 12 or 13 talented kids from the area around Winston-Salem, near the family’s home. They called themselves the Davie Bojangles — “The Biscuit Boys,” a nod to a local fast-food sponsor — and they set about playing summer tournaments. Bill Merrifield, a former star at Wake Forest whose own career had ended on the doorstep of the big leagues, was part head coach, part general manager. But that first summer his son started most games on the bench.

“The smallest kid out there,” Bill Merrifield said.

Whit was an athletic kid, his father says, coordinated and fast. He would eventually learn to bunt, becoming a master at getting on base. But he wasn’t ready yet. He had to wait his turn, even if his mother, Kissy, a former tennis player at Wake, wondered about the wisdom of having her oldest son on the bench.

“Whit didn’t understand it,” Bill Merrifield said. “His mom really didn’t understand it. But I just told him: ‘You just have to learn to play and do the things the right way. And once you grow, you’ll be ready.’”

There were always stories like this. When Merrifield was at Davie County High School, he gave up the starting quarterback position because the football program ran a run-oriented offense and he desired to be more valuable on defense. When he committed to play baseball at South Carolina, his father worried that his undersized son would struggle to play as an underclassman. But Whit won the center field job as a freshman and ultimately helped the program to its first College World Series championship, spraying the game-winning hit to right field against UCLA on a June night in Omaha in 2010.

“The guy’s a ballplayer,” said former South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, now the school’s athletic director. “He plays the game. He respects it. He plays it hard.”

Whit Merrifield (top) had the game-winning hit for South Carolina in the 2010 College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. Dave Weaver AP

As Merrifield entered his junior season at South Carolina, Tanner asked if he would move out of center field to accommodate teammate Jackie Bradley Jr., the future Boston Red Sox star. Tanner asked Merrifield to move to a corner outfield spot, yet he also wanted him to be able to move around the diamond. By year’s end, he had filled the utility role so well that Royals scout Casey Fahy scribbled one name down when searching for a similar player: Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist.

Merrifield had become one of the most dangerous hitters in the Southeastern Conference. But he never lost his ability to bunt. For years, Tanner had deployed a basic sign for his players: Bunt for a base hit. To this day, Tanner says, he feels guilty about this. But he gave that sign to Merrifield more than any player he had ever coached.

“I asked him to do that a little bit too much,” Tanner said. “But he was so good at it.”

On an afternoon in August, Whit Merrifield lounged near his locker in a clubhouse in St. Louis and listened to the list of names. In the last 50 years, just seven players have debuted in the majors after their 27th birthday and compiled at least 5.0 Wins Above Replacement in their first two seasons, according to the Baseball Reference version of the stat.

Of the players on the list, five were established imports from leagues in Japan or South Korea, including Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and Nori Aoki; one, first baseman Jose Abreu, hailed from Cuba; and the last is Merrifield, who pondered the bit of trivia from a visitor.

“So,” he said, his interest piqued. “Asians, Cubans … and me?”

There is perhaps no perfect answer to explain Merrifield’s unusual career arc, no one explanation for why he is better in the majors than he was in the minors. He finally broke through last May, earning a long-awaited debut. He caught fire in the opening weeks, claiming cult-hero status. He was demoted following a slump before returning in September and finishing with a flourish.

He entered spring training as a favorite to land a roster spot, only to lose out to Raul Mondesi at second base. Just 12 games into the season, the Royals conceded their mistake.

“Whit Merrifield exemplifies what a baseball player should be,” said Moore, the general manager. “They’re battle tested, they’ve had to persevere, they’ve allowed the game to shape them, mold them. His weaknesses have been exposed.”

A lot of us feel he deserved to be here a long time ago.”

Danny Duffy

There is no perfect answer, of course, but Merrifield believes in the power of little things. The lighting is poorer in minor-league parks, he says. Did you ever think about that? The travel can be brutal. The amenities and nutrition are worse. The wooden bats are less potent and the balls don’t quite shine like they do in the majors.

The greater focus on winning in the major leagues has also suited his style. As has his relationship with hitting coach Dale Sveum. When Merrifield was sent down last year, Sveum asked him to move closer to the plate, allowing him to cover the outer third and neutralize the “bastard slider.” He also worked on his “back-foot displacement,” studying Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, coaxing more leverage from his weight shift.

“To be an elite hitter, you have to dominate that outside pitch,” Merrifield said. “To do that, you can’t really spin. You have to really get through the ball.”

Day by day, the numbers have added up. In the first 162 games of his career, Merrifield recorded more than 175 hits, 80 runs, 40 doubles and 20 steals, becoming just the seventh major-league player to pull off that feat. When the season is over, he could become the first Royals second baseman since Frank White to hit 20 homers and the third player in franchise history to hit 20 homers and steal 30 bases (Carlos Beltran and Amos Otis are the others).

“I think everybody in this clubhouse thought he had it in him,” Duffy said. “He’s always been a professional hitter. He got here a little bit late. But a lot of us feel he deserved to be here a long time ago.”

As the final days of September approach, the Royals are barreling toward a .500 record. A championship core could be torn apart in the offseason. The future is somewhat murky. But for one summer, we have been witness to something new. Whit Merrifield forced his way into the lineup, grabbed hold of a starting spot and did not let go. For once, he was hard to miss.

“When I was coming up, people would say: ‘It’s better to get to the big leagues when you’re ready, then get there early, and to not be ready,’” Merrifield said. “Granted, I felt like I was ready earlier than I got my opportunity, but when I did get here, I felt ready.”

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