Whit Merrifield: Sustainable or Shelf-Life?
By Dan Marcus
Whit Merrifield has been one of the most shocking revelations of the 2017 fantasy baseball season. At this point, there’s little doubt he is a startable asset in any and all league formats and sizes. Given that trade deadlines have passed in nearly every league, it’s time to start looking at his expectations heading into 2018 for those who missed out on his 2017 breakout. Though Merrifield is currently performing at the top of his projectable outcomes, there is plenty about his profile that suggests he will maintain fantasy relevance in 2018.
The most impressive thing about Merrifield’s profile is his change of approach at the plate,which has allowed him to excel with excellent ratios and counting stats. For example, Merrifield has gotten more aggressive at the plate, but nearly all of his extra swings have come at pitches in the zone. Consider that Merrifield’s overall swing rate was 47.6% last season but is now 49%. Meanwhile, his swing rate at pitches inside the zone has risen from 63.5% to 66.9% and his swing rate at pitches outside the zone has dipped from 33.9% to 33.2%. That means he is being more aggressive at the plate while also selecting the right pitches to be aggressive on. As a result, his strikeout rate that has dropped from 21.7% to 13.5% and he is hitting .296 with 14 home runs. Typical indicators of potential regression such as BABIP also suggest that Merrifield can continue to hit for a high average, as it is currently at just .312.
Other benefits of his changed approach have been an increased flyabll rate. While he is still not a prolific power hitter, his 43.7% flyball rate isup 14% from last season andhas ensured that he is not a negative in the category. Even with this optimism, if there was a place to regress Merrifield heading into next season, his power would be the most obvious choice. Merrifield’s .190 ISO is the highest of his career at any level, so while there is a chance his adjustments at the plate have allowed him to take a jump, an ISO around .140 is likely more of an accurate expectation of things to come.
Of course, Merrifield’s best production has barely been mentioned to this point in the article and that is his stolen base production. Merrifield certainly appears to have earned the right to start 2018 as the presumptive leadoff hitter for the Royals. In that spot this season, he has attempted a stolen base every 23 plate appearances. He should continue to receive the green light as well as he is 19-for-21 on stolen base attempts this year and 27-for-32 throughout his career.
That leaves Merrifield as a safe three category player heading into next season, with his batting average and stolen bases as the safest for banking on production. If he can continue his refined 2017 plate approach, he should also be a run scoring threat, especially if he remains atop the Royals order.
Very Early 2018 Projection: .292, 70 R, 12 HR, 58 RBI, 30 SB