Whit Merrifield knew his time was up. The Royals’ second baseman finished 2018 as MLB's stolen base king, a year after he’d led the American League in that category but fell short of the overall title to Dee Gordon. But as Mitch Maier, the team’s outfield and baserunning coach, recalls, even as he was claiming the crown, Merrifield thought that his reign might be short—and brought to an end by a familiar face.
“He said, ‘I better win [in 2018], because with Mondesi, I don't know if I'm ever going to get a chance again,’” Maier says before a late April game against the Yankees in the Bronx.
The Mondesi that Merrifield sees chasing him down is his teammate, Adalberto, the 23-year-old shortstop and son of Raul who swiped 32 bags in just 75 games last season as a rookie. Mondesi isn’t Merrifield’s only threat within his own clubhouse, though. Over the winter, the Royals signed two of the game’s resident burners, Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore, to build a quartet seemingly more suited for a 4x400 meters relay at the Olympics than for baseball—but one that provides Kansas City with an advantage on the bases few teams can match.
“I’m blessed to have them,” Maier says, knowing full well the arsenal he has at his disposal. The Royals boast three of the five fastest runners in the sport, per Statcast’s Sprint Speed stat (minimum five running opportunities): Gore is No. 2 at 30.4 feet per second, Mondesi ranks fourth at 30.1 and Hamilton is right behind him at 29.5. Merrifield is further down at 28.4 feet per second, but that figure is still plenty good, given that the league average is around 27; it’s just not in the elite territory that his teammates occupy. “I'm not afraid to say Whit's the slowest of the group,” Maier says.
He may not be the resident rabbit, but Merrifield is keeping good pace with his speedier teammates. Though Hamilton leads the club in steals with eight (which also ranks second in the majors) and Mondesi is second with seven, Merrifield is right there with them at five, followed by Gore (a part-time player) with four. The result is a team that, unsurprisingly, leads the majors in steals with 28 in 25 games and is on pace to finish with 181. Just three teams since 2000 have swiped that many.
“We're a pretty exciting team to watch,” Merrifield says. “I think it's been good for our fans.”
Older baseball fans of all stripes can probably easily remember a time when brazen theft ruled the day. That style of play—heavy on stolen bases and smallball—was predominant in the 1970s and 80s, but has steadily declined over the last three decades. MLB’s high-water mark in steals came in 1987 with a whopping 3,585, but last year saw the league post its lowest post-expansion total with 2,474 swipes. Only six teams—the Royals included—reached triple digits in steals; Oakland, the league laggard, stole just 35 bags. Merrifield is MLB’s defending stolen base champ despite a relatively paltry 45 thefts in 2018, the fewest to lead the majors since George Case stole 44 for the 1942 Washington Senators. It’s four fewer than Rickey Henderson compiled just by the end of May 1982, when he set the all-time single-season record with 130.
“I'm not sure if there's not as much emphasis or if there's not a ton of guys,” says Maier of the stolen base’s demise. “You have to have speed to do it. Some teams would rather have a guy hit a double or a homer.”
The Royals, though, are sprinting while everyone else is trotting. That’s by design. “We play half of our games in the biggest park in the country [Kauffman Stadium],” Merrifield says. “There's not going to be a ton of homers hit, so we have to figure out other ways to score. We have the group of guys to put the ball in play and be fast, so that's how we feel is our best chance to go get runs.”
All that octane naturally leads one to wonder who would come out on top in a foot race. The four have never lined up for a 100-meter dash, though Maier knows who’d win. “I'd put my money on Terrance,” he says. “Terrance has springs in his legs.” Merrifield agrees. “He moves like nobody I've ever seen. He's next-level fast.”
That race remains, for now, a fascinating hypothetical. “I don’t know if they’d ever actually do it, because that would end all the trash talking that goes back and forth,” says first baseman Ryan O’Hearn. There’s also plenty of chirping as to who will take home the stolen base title, though Merrifield calls it a “friendly competition,” adding that if things are close late in the year, maybe a wager will be in order.
Maybe more studying is needed, because despite all those fast feet, the Royals’ would-be thieves have been caught 11 times in 39 attempts—a 72% success rate that’s below the statistically determined break-even point of 75. “We realize that's going to happen, guys are going to get thrown out,” Maier says. “It's a juggling game where we have to be smart with it and not give outs away but not pull the reins too far on these guys and not let them do what they do. You've got to live and die by it a little bit.” Nor have all those stolen bases created a juggernaut on offense: The team is averaging 4.56 runs per game, a smidge under the league average (though that represents a big jump from last year’s 3.94).
But running wild on the bases was never going to solve all of the team’s issues: Even Henderson in his prime would struggle to turn rebuilding Kansas City into a run-scoring machine. In a game now dominated by home runs and strikeouts, though, it’s fun to see something different and dynamic, like Hamilton scoring from second base on a sacrifice fly. It’s an element of baseball rarely seen anymore, and one that offers a visceral thrill few other outcomes can match.
Count O’Hearn among the fans. Standing 6’3” and weighing 200 pounds, he knows he has about as much chance of besting Gore or Hamilton in a sprint as he does winning the Powerball. But he still enjoys the havoc that his teammates wreak, made all the more enjoyable by how special it is.
“It’s cool for me to be able to appreciate it,” he says, “because it’s something I’ll never be able to do.”