Sunday Notes: Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield is Playing to Win

It’s almost always a cliche when a player says he’s out there to help his team win. When Whit Merrifield utters the phrase, the meaning is more nuanced. The 28-year-old Kansas City Royals outfielder attributes much of his late-bloomer success to an approach that didn’t seem plausible when he was a prospect.

After six-plus seasons in the minors, Merrifield is flowering in the big leagues because… he’s in the big leagues.

“Honestly, it’s just being up here and playing to win,” Merrifield told me when I asked about his breakout campaign. “Every day there’s a motivation to come to the field. There’s an excitement that you don’t really have in the minor leagues. Down there, you’re not playing to win every game so much as you’re playing to move up. Here, it’s a different attitude, and I’m at my best when I don’t focus on my numbers.”

His numbers have been a pleasant surprise. Playing in his first full MLB season — he split last year between Kansas City and Triple-A Omaha — Merrifield is slashing (despite his current 0 for 19 skid) a solid .281/.319/.461. Not only that, he’s left the yard 14 times, and his career home-run high on the farm was 11.

“I’m just in a little groove this year,” Merrifield responded when asked about his uptick in the power department. “I’ve always been more of a gap-to-gap, doubles hitter, but I can drive the ball. When I catch it right and get it a little more elevated, it will go out.”

The University of South Carolina product went into the 2015 offseason with a revitalized work ethic that arguably has as much to do with his success as his team-first attitude.

“I decided I was going to work like I never did before,” explained Merrifield. “I was going to try to get bigger, stronger, faster. I kind of saw that time as now or never. My path up here was (challenging). In 2014, when my career was kind of ‘Will he be up or will he be down?,’ we had a World Series team. In 2015, we had another World Series team. There wasn’t a lot of room up here. I decided to do everything in my power to make room.”

Having finally broken down the door, Merrifield is now focusing on another goal: Helping the Kansas City Royals win.

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St. Louis Cardinals rookie Paul DeJong has a biochemistry degree from Illinois State University. Earlier this week, I asked him if any of the knowledge he gleaned through his studies translates to the playing field.

“I think it helps in my problem solving, and in critical thinking,” responded DeJong, who is acing MLB-101 with a .305 batting average, a .917 OPS, and 20 home runs in just 283 plate appearances. “It’s kind of like following a process, like biology and chemistry were for me. But overall, I just come to the park with a clean slate every day, knowing what I need to do, and what I need to get better at.”

Does it have an impact on his interpersonal skills?

“I think so,” said the 24-year-old infielder. “I feel I can relate to a lot of people, just based on my academic knowledge. At the same time, there’s not a lot of biochemistry talk going on in baseball.”

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When he spoke at Saber Seminar earlier this month, Ben Cherington focused on communication and what it means to be a good teammate. Qualifying that it is just “one star in the galaxy of information,” the Blue Jays VP of baseball operations feels it is an important value-add to a big-league clubhouse.

Craig Breslow is among the players he cited.

“He can have an intelligent conversation with lots of different people,” Cherington said of the Yale graduate. “He has enough emotional intelligence to recognize that there are different forms of intelligence — different forms of brain power — and there are people in clubhouses who are going to think in a different way than people in a science room. He found a way to engage in those conversations… without it being threatening or patronizing. He’s a smart guy, but he’s also an emotionally smart guy.”

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Dodgers 2017 first-round pick Jeren Kendall majored in psychology at Vanderbilt, and he’s taken a lot of what he learned in the classroom with him into professional baseball. Ditto what he learned from his college coach. The 21-year-old outfielder is slashing just .197/.271/.329 with the Great Lakes Loons, but he’s remained both thoughtful and even-keeled.

“I’m just trying to drink this all in, and enjoy it as much as I can,” said Kendall, who feels the quality of play in the Midwest League is similar to that of the Southeastern Conference. “You want to have a good mentality toward this game. I’ve been through three years of Tim Corbin at Vanderbilt, and a lot of what he preaches isn’t really about baseball. It’s about the way to approach life, and a lot about life you use in baseball. It’s not very superficial. You have to go into it — you have to look into it — and you have to trust it. I want to continue to get better, and at the same time I want to have fun.”

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Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had the following to say when I asked him what hasn’t gone as expected for his club this season:

“I don’t set expectations,” said Hurdle. “My experience over the years has told me that’s not really a good avenue for me to go. You set up the roster, you provide opportunities for men to play. They have a track record you can look to, however every season presents its new opportunities and challenges. This year, we’ve been given a lot of different opportunities disguised as challenges. They’ve followed us around. Health, performance, Kang’s situation in Korea, Marte’s situation with the suspension… Jameson Taillon is another one. It’s been a year of transition. Our goal is to play our best baseball at the end of the season.”

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A few additional notes and quotes on Detroit Tigers pitching prospect Anthony Castro, who a few days ago shared his thoughts on the situation in his native Venezuela:

The right-hander told me he’s topped out at 96 MPH this year, and typically sits 93-94. He described his velocity as “good, but nothing fantastic like Noah Syndergaard, or Max Scherzer, or Gerrit Cole.” He’s working on a sinker to augment his four-seamer, which gets natural cutting action. He feels his changeup has been better than his curveball in recent outings.

Scherzer is one of his favorite pitchers to watch, largely because of how competitive he is. He’s also a huge fan of Felix Hernandez — “one of the best pitchers born in my country” — who he noted is dealing with health issues.

Castro had Tommy John surgery in May 2015, and returned to the mound in June 2016. He feels he learned a lot during his recovery period by closely watching big-league pitchers. He paid attention to “all the little details,” focusing more on failure than success. Castro opined that “It’s no use when they throw a no hitter or a perfect game. I like to know what the people who are making a lot of millions do when they have bad outings.”

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AUGUST TIDBITS

Tim Beckham had 30 hits in his first 15 games with the Orioles. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the most hits in a player’s first 15 games for a team since Kenny Lofton had 31 through 15 games for Atlanta in 1997. Before Lofton, the last player with as many as 30 was Nap Lajoie, with the Cleveland Indians, in 1902.

Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop leads MLB second basemen in home runs (26) and RBI (86). Schoop is slashing .299/.348/.532.

Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton leads MLB in game-tying homers (7) and in go-ahead homers (20)

New York Yankees teammates Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez all hit the 40th home run of their respective big-league careers on Monday.

Last night, Aaron Judge struck out in his 36th consecutive game, breaking an ignominious single-season record previously held by pitcher Bill Stoneman in 1971. Adam Dunn fanned in 36 consecutive games between the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Manny Machado is 22 for 58 with seven home runs and 25 RBI over his last 13 games. The Orioles infielder has three grand slams over that stretch.

The Angels have allowed three walk-off grand slams since July 25. The 1963 Cubs are the only other team to give up three walk-off grand slams in a single season.

On Friday, Boston’s Rafael Devers became the second player to hit seven home runs in his first 19 games before turning 21. Ron Swoboda turned the trick with the New York Mets in 1965.

This past Monday, Hunter Greene — the second-overall pick in this year’s draft — went 4 for 7 in this third professional game. The recently-turned 18-year-old Cincinnati Reds prospect is playing for the short-season Billings Mustangs.

Fernando Kelli, an 19-year-old switch-hitting outfielder in the Cubs system, is slashing .335/.447/.466 in the Dominican Summer League. He has 54 stolen bases in 59 games.

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Hal Newhouser won 207 games — all but seven with the Detroit Tigers — in a Hall of Fame career that spanned the 1939 and 1955 seasons. And not only did he excel on the mound, he had an astute eye for talent. According to Mark Servais, a longtime scout now working for the Chicago Cubs, Newhouser made a prescient prediction prior to the 1992 draft.

“We were both with Houston — I worked under Hal — and we had the first pick that year,” explained Servais. “I’d seen Derek Jeter, and I said to Hal, ‘You’ve got to see this kid.’ He went, and afterwards he called me and said, ‘Mark, this guy is going to be in the Hall of Fame someday.’ I mean, what a statement to make. Hal was saying that about a 17-year-old kid out of Kalamazoo (MI) Central. And he was right on.”

According to Servais, money was the primary reason the Astros bypassed Jeter, who ultimately went sixth overall to the Yankees.

“Houston was under a pretty tight budget, and Derek wanted a certain amount,” said Servais. “The family was just legit — his mother and dad were great — and with people like that, when they tell you something, they mean it. I went to the boss and he asked, ‘What’s it going to take?’ I told him the figure, and he came back about a week later and said, ‘We can’t take him.’ Can you imagine if we would have taken him? The Astros would have had Bagwell, Biggio, and Jeter.”

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Gary Bell pitched for four teams, mostly the Cleveland Indians, from 1958-1969. He enjoyed plenty of success, winning 121 games and making three All-Star teams. Would he have enjoyed pitching in this era?

“Well, the strike zone right now is like a postage stamp,” Bell told me. “But for $10-12 million a year, I’d enjoy it very much.”

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MLB umpires will reportedly begin wearing write wristbands to protest what they feel was insufficient punishment for Ian Kinsler’s criticism of Angel Hernandez. The Detroit Tigers infielder was fined, but not suspended, for saying, among other things, that Hernandez “needs to find another job.”

The World Umpires Association has every right to be dissatisfied with the Commissioner office’s ruling. Truth be told, a suspension was probably warranted. That said, the armbands may do more harm than good. As much as anything, they will serve as a daily reminder that some umpires are perceived to be of poor quality. Without them, Kinsler’s words would soon be forgotten.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The Cardinals suffered a brutal, umpire-assisted loss on Wednesday, and Benjamin Hochman of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch told us all about it.

Ken Kaiser, a colorful umpire who dabbled in professional wrestling — and despised Earl Weaver — died recently at age 72. Richard Sandomir wrote his obituary for The New York Times.

Also at The New York Times, Jere Longman looked into the brain cancer that keeps killing baseball players.

MLB.com’s A.J. Cassavell wrote about how Padres rookie Manny Margot has the makings of a Gold Glove outfielder.

Over at cleveland.com, Zack Meisel wrote about a 91-year-old Cleveland Indians fan who has been buying a season ticket for his late wife for nearly two decades.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Curtis Granderson has more home runs (312 to 287) and stolen bases (149 to 147) than Bernie Williams.

Albert Pujols has 609 home runs and has struck out 1,128 times. Sammy Sosa had 609 home runs and struck out 2,306 times.

The Dodgers’ .717 winning percentage is on pace to be the highest in franchise history. The 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers went 105-47 (.682) in Vin Scully’s fourth year behind the microphone.

As of yesterday, the Los Angeles Angels held the second wildcard spot in the American League with a record of 62-60. On this date in 1967, the Angels were 62-60 and in need of jumping four teams to make the postseason.

The 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates won 98 regular season games. John Candelaria, who went 14-9, led the team in wins.

In 1985, Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Dave Stieb finished the season with a record of 14-13. He allowed two-or-fewer earned runs in 26 of his 36 starts, including five losses and eight no-decisions. He allowed two-or-fewer in five of his losses, and in eight of his no-decisions. He recorded one win in games where he allowed three-or-more earned runs.

On August 19, 1945, Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia Phillies picked up the win while allowing two runs over six-and-third innings against the Cincinnati Reds. Yes, this is the same Jimmie Foxx who retired with a 1.038 OPS and 534 home runs.

On this date in 1938, Lou Gehrig hit the 23rd, and final, grand slam of his career.

Mike Thurman’s 60% strikeout rate is the highest of any player with at least 100 plate appearances over the past 50 seasons. A right-handed pitcher for the Expos and Yankees from 1997-2002, Thurman had four hits in 131 at bats, and fanned 93 times.

The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has formed a new international chapter, named for Bert Blyleven, in the Netherlands. SABR’s 72 regional chapters cover 37 U.S. states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Nepal,,Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and the United Kingdom.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield is Playing to Win by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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LHPSU
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LHPSU

Players should wear black armbands in any game that Angel Hernandez is officiating. Actually, the whole stadium should wear them.

dl80
Member
dl80

He is so awful, and I’m not even a Mets fan! He’s easily the worst I’ve seen. But he’s also going to get us an automatic strike zone within 10 years, so I’m conflicted about him.