Whit Merrifield’s greatest moment in baseball was supposed to be his last of any consequence.
Even on a South Carolina team that had only one player drafted in the first three rounds—Jackie Bradley Jr.—Merrifield didn’t stand out. He was a 6-foot corner outfielder with the potential to be a grinder, which is what you say about a player when you can’t find anything nice to say about his tools. Merrifield seemed like a lock to kick around in the minor leagues for a few years, make it to Double-A, stall, and, at some point in his late 20s, decide he’d rather be a coach or a scout, or just go back to Columbia, South Carolina, and never pay for a beer again as long as he lived.
Merrifield lasted until the ninth round of the 2010 draft—269th overall, three picks ahead of a shortstop-conversion lottery ticket out of Stetson named Jacob deGrom—and signed with the Royals for $100,000. He didn’t break an .800 OPS in the minors until his third trip through Double-A. Merrifield played all three outfield positions and all four infield positions, splitting most of his time (a little more than 2,000 innings each) between second base and left field.
In May 2016, Kansas City could no longer countenance playing Omar Infante (63 OPS+ in 1,179 PA with the Royals) at second base, so up came the 27-year-old Merrifield. He was no kind of prospect, but it was fun to see him make the Show in the same way that it’s fun when a character actor you liked on ER gets an arc on Madam Secretary—“Oh, remember how great he was as that guy who lost his arm in a bike accident? Good to see he’s still working.”
Merrifield did well, relatively speaking—a 90 OPS+ in 332 PA for a team whose OPS+ leader was Drew Butera isn’t nothing—but 27-year-old rookie utilitymen tend not to be worth getting attached to.
So this bWAR leaderboard for second basemen is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Second Basemen bWAR Leaderboard
José Altuve’s leading not only second basemen but all MLB position players in WAR. Schoop made his first All-Star team and is going to hit at least 30 home runs, and then—before you get to Ian Kinsler or Robinson Canó or Daniel Murphy or Brian Dozier—you get to Merrifield.
Merrifield’s hitting .297/.333/.482 with 19 stolen bases in 21 attempts and average-to-above-average defense at second. He isn’t putting up Aaron Judge’s hard-contact rate, and he isn’t walking much, but he is avoiding strikeouts (13.3 K%, down more than a third from his 2016 rate and 19th best out of 156 qualified hitters), and he’s maintained his flair for the dramatic.
Since Merrifield broadly fits the David Eckstein archetype, and because of that walk-off hit against UCLA seven years ago, it’s tempting to label him as a “winner.” Merrifield’s .297 batting average and 90 percent stolen base success rate are more valuable to the Royals than any of his metaphysical attributes, but he has come up big in important moments this year.
Merrifield is hitting .304/.368/.446 in high-leverage situations (a 117 sOPS+). In late and close situations, which Baseball-Reference defines as “plate appearances in the seventh or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck,” Merrifield is hitting .340/.393/.638, which is a 188 sOPS+, the 13th best among 181 batters with at least 50 late and close plate appearances this season. Merrifield is also third among second basemen, and 30th overall, in win probability added. During the nine-game winning streak that reinserted the Royals into the wild-card hunt, he hit .350/.386/.675 with four home runs.
Even if this is just an anomaly, and Merrifield’s clutchness evens out over time, he’s still turned himself—suddenly and much later than is the case for most breakout hitters—into a very good big league player. Merrifield is within spitting distance of posting a four-win season, which is a mark 40 second basemen have reached since 2000. If you look at the list, there isn’t a bad player among them—even Ronnie Belliard was a 20-win player for his career, and Darwin Barney’s wrung eight seasons and counting out of his glove.
The way Merrifield’s hitting (.333/.365/.556 in 126 PA since the break), he might reach five wins, a barrier only 26 second basemen have broken since 2000. Once players hit that level, they regress, they age, they drop off, but they don’t turn all the way back into pumpkins overnight.
Merrifield has carved out a big league career for himself no matter what, even if it’s unlikely that he continues to play like a supernatural clutch monster. Then again, he wasn’t even likely to make it out of Double-A, so you never know.