Whit Merrifield talks Royals win, milestones and first hits
Royals scout Casey Fahy meant well. He wanted to help, pass along useful advice from someone who’d learned lessons first-hand.
So Fahy grabbed his phone and tapped out a series of text messages to Whit Merrifield, relaying sentiments and tips he’d received from a former big-league player who’d made himself a valuable 25th man on a major-league roster and thrived in that role.
At the time, in the spring of 2017, Merrifield had already debuted in the majors, but he hadn’t established himself as an everyday starter or even a mainstay on the Royals’ big-league roster. In fact, he began that season in the minors.
That’s what prompted Fahy, the area scout who signed Merrifield, to send the texts.
Merrifield, 30, doesn’t remember the exchange. But there’s no uncertainty in his mind about how he would’ve received those words of supposed wisdom.
“That was never my mindset,” Merrifield said. “I never wanted to come up here and be a utility guy, even though that’s what everybody wanted me to be. So if he would’ve sent me that, I probably would’ve disregarded that pretty quickly.”
An American League All-Star for the first time in his career, Merrifield takes his place among the best in baseball at Progressive Field in Cleveland Tuesday night for the sports’ midsummer showcase — the MLB All-Star Game. For Merrifield, getting to this stage has taken a mixture of talent, work ethic, confidence, defiance, perseverance and opportunity.
“To be honest with you, it was terrible advice, because he didn’t take it and it was the greatest thing that’s ever happened,” Fahy said. “He just went on and surpassed everything else. He not only became the 25th man, but then started playing every day and then started hitting in the leadoff spot.
“Looking back on it, because I still have the text messages, I was reading it and I was cracking up to myself: ‘My God, what an idiot.’ That was terrible advice. I’m really happy he didn’t listen to it, and was basically like, ‘You know what, screw you. I’m going to go out and be the best player on the field and not just the 25th man on the roster.’”
A unique talent
Royals manager Ned Yost calls Merrifield, a former ninth-round draft pick in 2010, the best he’s ever been around at being able to deftly play multiple spots defensively. He’s played every position on the infield and all three outfield spots in the majors.
Merrifield didn’t even make the Royals’ opening day roster out of camp until last season, and in his first full season he led the club in games (158), runs (88), hits (192), doubles (43), walks (61), stolen bases (45), batting average (.304), on-base percentage (.367) and OPS (.806).
He also became the third player since World War II to lead the majors in both hits and steals (45), joining Dee Gordon (2015) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001). The only other Royals to lead the majors in hits were Willie Wilson (230 in 1980) and George Brett (212 in 1979, 215 in 1976).
“Rare? How rare is it to walk down the street to find a nugget of gold or a diamond in the bushes?” Yost said of Merrifield. “That’s about how rare it is that a guy is going to come out of nowhere, a guy you didn’t expect to be a big-league player — it took us forever to get him on the roster — and turn out to be one of the better players in Major League Baseball.”
This season, Merrifield hasn’t slowed. He leads the majors in hits at the All-Star break (117) and is on pace for more than 200 this season. He’s tied for second in the American League in total bases (189), ranks second in triples (eight), is tied for fourth in extra-base hits (43) and sits sixth in runs scored (62).
His 11 home runs put him one behind his season total from last year, and eight shy of his career high (19).
“Whit was just one of those guys that not only continues to hit the ceiling, but he continues to punch through it,” Fahy said. “I stopped putting expectations on that kid a long time ago because every time you think that he’s done something well, he goes out and doubles down and does it better the next time.”
Productive and versatile
Fahy first saw Merrifield play as a sophomore at the University of South Carolina during an NCAA Regional at East Carolina. Merrifield and teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. were the two best players on the field, Fahy recalled.
The next year, as a draft-eligible player, Merrifield played multiple positions for the eventual national champion Gamecocks.
Assistant general manager J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ scouting director at the time, urged Fahy to pay special attention to Merrifiled because of his versatility and the value it provided.
“He was constantly responsible for production,” Fahy said. “You’d look up at the end of the game. They’d have seven runs, and he’d be responsible for four or them, almost all of the time. If they scored five, he was responsible for three whether it was driving two in, scoring one, whatever it was. He was always on base. He was always creating something.”
When Fahy wrote his report on Merrifield, he made a comparison based on his positional versatility and offensive ability. It wasn’t until years later, when Merrifield first broke into the majors, that he shared the comparison in an interview ... and it drew some eye rolls.
Fahy likened Merrifield to super-utility player Ben Zobrist, an All-Star in 2009, 2013 and 2016. By the end of 2016, Zobrist had been a crucial piece in two World Series championship teams — the 2015 Royals and the 2016 Chicago Cubs. He earned World Series MVP honors in 2016.
“Of course in 2016, when (Merrifield) just got called up, Ben Zobrist was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Fahy said. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, let’s hold on. He’s not Ben Zobrist,’ at that time. Of course, where we are now, a lot of people in Kansas City are all right with Whit Merrifield over Ben Zobrist right now.”
Picollo didn’t necessarily look at Merrifield out of college as a “role player,” but he did see him as the type of player who filled a particular role in shaping a roster.
After all, the Royals played more like a National League team and needed guys who could move around. A player like Merrifield could play second base but could also play third, center field, left or right. He helped put the best team on the field possible because if productive offensive players were locked into one position, Merrifield provided flexibility.
Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak played alongside Merrifield at South Carolina for one season. Smoak, an eventual first-round draft pick (11th overall), was a junior when Merrifield started as a skinny freshman.
“He didn’t hit for much power, even with the juiced-up metal bat,” Smoak said. “I always give him crap to this day.”
Now in his 10th season in the majors and a former All-Star, Smoak believes the game has changed so much that an athlete like Merrifield is capable of doing so many valuable things as he continues to grow offensively.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought he would have done what he’s been doing in the big leagues the last few years,” Smoak said. “That’s just his work ethic that’s got him to where he’s at. He’s a really good athlete. He definitely deserves the opportunity to go (to the All-Star Game).”
Mechanically, Merrifield insists his swing hasn’t changed significantly since age 14.
The same motion that hit a College World Series walk-off hit is the one blasting balls into the gaps or over outfield walls in major-league ballparks across the country.
The differences in his game come from him having gotten bigger and stronger, and gaining a better understanding of himself as a hitter and how pitchers want to attack him.
“I’ve gotten better, that’s the whole goal,” Merrifield said. “That’s what’s so frustrating with me about analytics. People see what you’ve done and assume that’s how you are. When they don’t factor in adjustments, learning what makes you successful, learning how pitchers are pitching you.
“I feel like I’ve done a good job learning what makes me good, what makes me successful, and continuing to evolve and fix things that give me trouble.”
He drives the ball more now and hits the ball to all fields, but the “best thing” about Merrifield’s development has been that he never got away from who he always was as a hitter, according to Picollo.
“I know where he hits for us in the lineup, but you could put him in a two-hole, a three-hole or a five-hole and still have a productive hitter,” Picollo said.
Picollo had a recent conversation with a college coach who’d seen Merrifield play for years. The coach said he’d thought about what type of player Whit Merrifield was going to turn into, but he never in his “wildest imagination” thought he’d accomplish the things he’s done so far in the majors.
Even back then, though, Merrifield did all the little things coaches like: hitting behind runners, bunting for hits, doing whatever was needed for the team.
“He’s pretty much the same guy today,” Picollo said. “He’s just a much more talented player who has developed at a late age to become an All-Star.”
When Merrifield signed a four-year contract with a fifth-year option this winter that made him a potential franchise cornerstone, he recounted how he nearly gave up on his big-league dream.
After 2015, when he’d been told he was going from Triple-A to the majors only for the club to switch gears and promote a pitcher instead, Merrifield began to think, if only briefly, that he was fighting a losing battle.
Now, he’s the oldest position player in franchise history selected to the All-Star Game for the first time.
Royals bullpen coach Vance Wilson managed Merrifield in the minor leagues and watched Merrifield’s development on a daily basis.
The biggest factor in Merrifield having grown into an impact player in the majors?
“Opportunity,” Wilson said. “I think the thing that’s wrong with our game is we put ceilings on people. The only thing that allows people to reach their true ceiling is opportunity. I’m sure we could probably think of a lot of guys, and it doesn’t matter the organization — what’s in front of them, what do we as an industry-rate guys as prospects, everyday players — sometimes the industry puts the ceiling on guys, which is unfair.”
The Royals dictated Merrifield’s ceiling — to an extent. Wilson pointed to the presence of players like Alcides Escobar, Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas on the infield and Lorenzo Cain in the outfield as key figures in a World Series champion who were also limiting opportunities for a player like Merrifield.
That’s why Wilson, who spent his major-league career as a backup catcher behind a pair of Hall of Famers (Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez), credits Merrifield for grinding through the minors and continuing to produce no matter where they sent him until he finally changed his own ceiling.
“Everybody’s clock is different,” Wilson said. “At Mondesi’s age, Whit doesn’t do these things. Whit’s a little bit of a late bloomer. ...
“His clock was just different than other guys. At age 28, 29, 30 he’s doing what some guys do at 23, 24, 25 in the big leagues. That’s the greatest thing to watch — Whit hasn’t let age define him. He hasn’t let his journey define him. We’re getting a fricking really good All-Star player.”