Over the second half of the MLB season, the best base-stealers in the game resided in Kansas City, a pair of middle infielders placed atop the Royals’ lineup.
The consequences of allowing second baseman Whit Merrifield and shortstop Adalberto Mondesi on the base paths was nearly identical. Merrifield led the league with 28 stolen bases after the All-Star break. Mondesi had 27.
But the manner in which they stole them was quite different. Mondesi swipes bags on pure athleticism and speed, his manager says, a level of God-given talents rare even among professional athletes. Royals manager Ned Yost refers to Merrifield as more of an “opportunistic” stealer, a player capable of picking the right spots and making the right reads.
But it was Mondesi who helped Merrifield lead the majors in stolen bases in 2018, when he finished with 45.
How? His mere presence.
In the last month of the season, Yost moved Mondesi up to the No. 2 spot in the order, right behind Merrifield. After the switch, Merrifield stole 15 bases in 25 games during that stretch.
Merrifield was initially dismissive of any correlation, calling it a coincidence. But a few questions later into the interview, he returned to the original talking point and reconsidered.
“Actually, I take that back — since he’s kind of a second leadoff guy right behind me, I started to take more of a gamble, especially with two outs,” Merrifield said. “If I get thrown out, he’s leading off the next inning, which isn’t a bad thing.”
That’s one scenario. Merrifield, who led all of MLB in both hits and steals in 2018, recognized a second scenario, too. With Mondesi at the plate, he was more prone to try to take third base, even with two outs. That bucked the cliche to never take a risk at making the last out at third.
“Stealing third with two outs was a bigger focus of mine when he’s hitting because I know how fast he is and know if he hits a two-hopper to short, he could beat it out, so I knew I needed to be on third to score,” Merrifield said. “With him, there’s just so much he can do. For me to try to advance 90 feet is important.
“I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah, there’s (a correlation) there.”
And one to stay.
Yost liked the combination of Merrifield and Mondesi in the top two spots in the order in September. It gave the Royals a flavor they possessed in 2014 and 2015, disrupting pitchers with speed on the bases and, in turn, giving the middle of the order more fastballs — a pitch catchers prefer to call with a threat of a stolen base looming. That’s one of the reasons Alex Gordon was effective as a No. 3 hitter down the stretch, Yost believed.
It was a boost to the record, too. The Royals enjoyed their only winning month of the season in September, the same month with Merrifield hitting leadoff and Mondesi hitting second.
“That’s what we’re trying to do at the top (of the lineup) there,” Yost said. “We’ve seen Mondi’s speed — he’s at the top of his class there. And with Whit there, we’re getting more athletic.”
It’s back-to-back titles for Merrifield, who led the American League with 34 in 2017 before besting all major-leaguers in 2018 with his 45.
Perhaps his top competition toward a three-peat sits only a few lockers away. Mondesi has the speed to steal 70 bases in a season, Yost says. But Merrifield did take 15 in one month with the lineup alteration. And he’s heard before he isn’t all that fast, only to prove the theory wrong.
“When people say that, I like to ask them why they think I’m not very fast,” Merrifield said. “They don’t really have an answer. People are gonna view me how they view me. I’ll just keep going out and play how I play and hopefully change their views.”