Now that football season has officially come to an end, this is now the time where many fantasy baseball players turn their draft prep into high gear. Thankfully over the next few weeks, the RotoFanatic team will have a ton of content ready to go. This week we will be focusing on the middle infield. This will begin like last week did with the Rankings Hi/Lo debate. In this installment, we will be looking at Whit Merrifield.
Merrifield has been one of the best players for fantasy ever since his 2017 breakout. He posted elite AVGs paired with a ton of SBs. While the stolen base numbers fell off a bit in 2019, the 2020 season saw his numbers bounceback. His power numbers have never been elite but he did hit nine homers in 235 at-bats in 2020. Defending his high ranking of Merrifield will be Carmen Maiorano while Paul Mammino will be taking over the argument against the Royal.
The High Ranking For Whit (2B2)
Here are some key Whit Merrifield stats, from 2018-2020:
- Third highest batting average for second basemen
- Scored the second-most runs
- Most plate appearances
- Second most stolen bases, 22 in front of third place
I don’t think we fully appreciate what Merrifield has done for us in fantasy, and he even had nine homers to go along with 12 steals and a .282 average in 2020. His .280+ average is built on consistently hitting line drives, and spraying the ball to all fields. While his barrel rate and maximum exit velocity are below average, we can expect 15-20 homers for Merrifield based on accumulating plate appearances hitting leadoff. What I alluded to is the most important – those plate appearances. He’s had a tremendous history of staying on the field, getting to 700+ plate appearances in both 2018 and 2019. This helps him tremendously in the runs department. Fantasy players are nervous about his age in terms of declining steals, but he has sprint speed in the 89th percentile, and I think he easily nabs 20 stolen bases, given that he stole 12 in 60 games last year. Add it all up, and it’s hard to find a four-category contributor like Merrifield at second base, and that’s why I’m willing to pay for him at his ADP. Yes, his ceiling is baked into that ADP, but the probability that he hits that ceiling is significantly higher than most players.
The Low Ranking For Whit (2B7)
When looking over Merrifield’s career numbers there’s a lot to really love. He steals a ton of bases, plays almost every day, hits for a high average, and scores a ton of runs. He’s without a doubt been one of the best players for fantasy owners for years. However, despite what appeared to be a solid campaign in 2020, I see a ton of warning signs. His fly-ball rate slightly increased, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, for a guy like Merrifield who does not possess a ton of power, this is a huge concern. This caused his BABIP to drop and his average fell along with it. However, he still hit .280.
Additionally, his already low walk rate dropped even more. There does not seem to be any major changes to the profile that caused this outside of making more contact on pitches out of the zone. More contact is good, however, more contact on pitches outside of the zone is another signal that his low BABIP might be deserved. I’m also concerned that the 2019 SB numbers return due to a lower OBP. If the BABIP issues remain and he no longer is a .300 hitter, the 20-25 SBs will not enough in my opinion to outweigh the low HR totals.
The Data Monster’s Take
Looking over the Data Monster you’ll see that Merrifield is a guy who excels exactly where you would expect him to.
- He is elite at making contact: 92nd percentile In_Whiff
- He is hyper-aggressive in the zone: 84th percentile IZ
- The aggressiveness continues out of the zone; 16th percentile OOZ
However, the most interesting trend we saw is Merrifield’s wOBA numbers. Let’s look at the below percentile rankings for his career.
While his In_wOBA has slipped to below average for the first time in his career, the number I find most interesting about this chart is the career-low xLwOBA. What this tells me is that there may have been a change in the way pitchers approached Merrifield. While the difference is small, he did see fewer fastballs in 2020 than ever before. The Data Monster numbers show the overall expected impact of this change. Like many hitters, Whit has done the majority of his damage on fastballs. It will be interesting to see if this is a change that continues to exist in 2021 and if it does it could spell bad news for his ability to hit .300 again.