Judging the Royals

Numbers don’t tell Whit Merrifield’s whole story, you have to watch him play

Kansas City Royals’ Whit Merrifield forces out Colorado Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon at second and completes the double play on DJ LeMahieu, ending the top of the seventh inning during Thursday’s baseball game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals’ Whit Merrifield forces out Colorado Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon at second and completes the double play on DJ LeMahieu, ending the top of the seventh inning during Thursday’s baseball game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. jsleezer@kcstar.com

In the bottom of the first inning of Thursday’s game against the Colorado Rockies, Royals infielder Whit Merrifield hit a home run; it was his 15th homer of the season and Merrifield finished the day hitting .288.

Plenty of big-league teams would love to have a second baseman who plays solid defense, hits for average, has some pop in his bat and runs the bases like his hair’s on fire.

And yet, when Merrifield was available in the Rule 5 draft, no team took him.

Before Thursday’s game, Royals manager Ned Yost talked about Merrifield, players like him and why teams miss on those types of players:

It’s difficult to measure desire and determination.

Take two players with equal numbers: the player who wants it more is the player you want. He’s the guy who will take extra ground balls, extra swings and actually listen when a coach is explaining how something ought to be done.

And there’s no metric for that.

Makeup is the hardest thing to measure

There are numbers that measure how often a player gets on base, how much power he has and how often he can swipe a bag, but it’s much more difficult to measure a player’s makeup.

A kid could be Johnny Baseball All-American as an amateur, but turn into a jerk once he’s given millions of dollars and a sense of entitlement. And if you don’t think a player’s personality matters, you probably haven’t played 162 games with a jerk.

So teams try to get a fix on what a player is like.

If the player’s an amateur, teams will talk to his family, his high school coach and anyone who might know him well enough to have a worthwhile opinion.

If the player’s a pro, teams will call around and talk to people who have been around him.

And that includes clubhouse attendants. The “clubbies” see players at their best and worst, they see how a player acts when the media isn’t around and they know which players throw their dirty jocks in the laundry hamper and which players leave them lying on the floor and expect someone else to pick them up.

Clubbies might know more about a player’s true personality than anyone in baseball.

Avoid clubhouse cancers, they can destroy a team

You might wonder why any of this matters: if the player puts up numbers, who cares if he picks up his dirty laundry?

But a jerk might put up good numbers and make players around him worse.

A jerk does that by being a distraction. Teammates who should be focused on baseball instead focus on the jerk and what he’s said or done.

And jerks are rarely happy to be jerks all by themselves. A jerk will criticize the front office, the manager, the coaches — even the postgame food served in the clubhouse — and pretty soon other players are unhappy and then the team has factions.

And a team with factions is unlikely to play well.

Before inviting a player into their clubhouse, teams try to figure out what that player is like and the best way of doing that is to watch the player play.

To get a complete picture, you have to watch players play

When players play, they leave a string of numbers in their wake and you don’t have to see players play to see those numbers. That has led some misguided people to suggest scouts are no longer necessary.

But smart teams know both the number crunchers and scout are necessary, because scouts don’t just hold radar guns, they also pay attention to the moments that don’t get recorded.

When a player sits in the dugout, who does he talk to? If he’s a catcher, is he talking to his pitcher? If he’s an outfielder, is he talking to his outfield coach? Is the player locked in on the game or goofing around on the bench?

When the player’s on deck, what’s he doing? Is he focused on the opposing pitcher or checking out women in the stands?

If the player is presented with a chance to move a runner over, does he try to do it? In the field, does he play it safe to avoid getting tagged with an error?

If you want a complete picture of a player, you have to watch the player play.

And that gets us back to Whit Merrifield.

Plenty of Royals fans now say Merrifield is one of their favorite players. Ask them why and those fans are likely to say they like the way Merrifield plays.

They can see Merrifield hustle. They can see Merrifield attempt plays that might earn him an error if those plays don’t work out. They can see Merrifield’s disappointment with himself when he thinks he made a mistake.

And none of those things are apparent when you look at Merrifield’s numbers.

To understand what makes Whit Merrifield special, you have to watch Whit Merrifield play.