KC Royals center fielder Whit Merrifield: By the numbers

 

The KC Royals are moving Whit Merrifield to center field ahead of the 2020 season. What do the metrics suggest for his performance?

We’re slowly inching closer and closer to baseball being back. Spring training kicks off in less than a month for the KC Royals and although there won’t be a ton of new faces on this year’s squad, we’ll get a good look at some fan-favorites playing new positions. Longtime second baseman/super-utility star Whit Merrifield is one of them.

Merrifield has built a reputation as one of the most reliable players in baseball over the last few seasons. Leading the league in hits in back-to-back seasons and playing good defense at second base, he brings his lunch pail and flat-out works day in and day out. He’s a special player, and one the Royals value a ton despite constant outside bantering about whether or not the team should trade him.

In the latter stages of Dec., the organization signed third baseman Maikel Franco to a one-year contract. As a result of this move, Hunter Dozier was moved to right field and Merrifield shifted to center. Because of the imminent emergence of second baseman Nicky Lopez, Merrifield needed somewhere to play that could see him get consistent innings. Center appears to be that spot, but what do the numbers say?

FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is one of the most widely-accepted statistics when it comes to defense. In addition to traditional UZR, the site projects that metric to UZR/150, or how a player would have fared had they played 150 games worth of innings at a certain position. It’s not perfect, but it provides a solid foundation for understanding how well (or poorly) a player defends.

In 2018, Merrifield logged 241.2 innings in center field. In those innings, he posted a 4.0 UZR. This is close to “above average” and when taking into consideration his UZR/150 of 22.3, it’s easy to see how good he graded on the year when he was out there.

Last season, though, it was a different story. In 131.1 innings, Merrifield’s UZR was -1.4 (barely below average) and his UZR/150 (-10.9) would have classified as “poor.” This ho-hum performance could have been due to fewer opportunities, but it’s still a far cry from the numbers posted the year prior. So… who’s the real Whit Merrifield: Royals center fielder?

The answer is probably somewhere in between. At the age of 31, Merrifield hasn’t experienced the athletic effects of aging and can still get to many balls in the outfield. His arm is reliable and accurate. He won’t make any highlight plays but as he gets a full season in center field, or something close to it, we’ll get a much better picture of just how good — or bad — he is there.

Next: Nicky Lopez is poised for a breakout 2020 season

What do you think, KC Royals fans? Is Whit going to shine in center, or will he struggle? Only time will tell.

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