In what was an underwhelming 2021 season for the Kansas City Royals, Whit Merrifield was as steady as he ever has been. Kind of.
It's reasonable to argue that the 32-year-old peaked in either 2018 or 2019. In 2018, he posted six Outs Above Average at second base and set career-highs in stolen bases (45), OPS+ (120), bWAR (4.5) and fWAR (5.1). The following campaign, he led all of baseball in triples and hits, launched 16 home runs and played in all 162 games. No matter how you slice it, Merrifield's age 29 and 30 seasons were his best.
Last year's shortened slate saw Merrifield perform closer to league average at the plate than he had in the past. His OPS dropped nearly 50 points, his batting average dipped 20 points and his overall defensive performance slipped. He was still a winning player and managed to play in all 60 games, but something seemed a bit off.
It turns out, that "something off" was the beginning of a slight decline for Two Hit Whit. The 2021 season continued that trend.
This year, Merrifield posted career-lows in batting average and on-base percentage. His slugging percentage was also under .400 for the first time since 2016 — when he made his debut. Merrifield's OPS+ and wRC+, both 91, also matched the numbers he put up five years ago. A decline in power and a much lower BABIP contributed to the worst-hitting version of Merrifield we've seen in half a decade. It's fair to expect production similar to this, if not even a tad bit worse, moving forward as he's set to enter his age-33 season in 2022.
That doesn't mean Merrifield wasn't good, though.
As expected, Merrifield made things happen with his legs. Not only did he swipe 40 bags (which led the American League) this season, but he led MLB in doubles with 42. His sprint speed ranked in the 87th percentile among all baserunners. As usual, Merrifield legged out stolen bases and impacted the game in a legitimate way by using his quickness to his advantage in all facets. But wait — there's more.
Getting back to second base full-time may have been the best thing that's ever happened to Merrifield. Even at his slightly advanced age, he may have had the best defensive campaign of his career playing up the middle. After spending time in the outfield, the Royals made the right decision by moving him back to his original position. The numbers back it up, too.
Heading into this season, Merrifield's career-high in Outs Above Average at one position was six. That happened at second base in 2018, and it happened again in 2021 at the same spot. That figure ranked sixth among qualified second basemen, and his five runs prevented were fifth. Don't just take Baseball Savant's word for it — other sites and statistics also agree.
Baseball-Reference awarded Merrifield 1.5 dWAR (Defensive Wins Above Replacement) in 2021. His previous best? 0.6 in 2016. According to FanGraphs, Merrifield's UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) at second base this season was 6.2. That trailed league-leader Marcus Semien by a tenth of a point. Last year, Merrifield's total was negative 0.1 at second base and positive 1.0 in the outfield.
With so much talk surrounding how the Royals should align their players next season, moving Merrifield off of second base following a possible Gold Glove-winning year would be a tough move to justify. Sure, he's proven to be decent in the outfield, but his value is at its highest in the infield. At second base.
As Merrifield continues to age, it's unclear how he'll perform at the plate. If 2021 was any indication, it may not be what people have grown accustomed to seeing. With that said, he doesn't show signs of slowing down on the basepaths and his defense at second is as good as ever. That's where his value will be added in the immediate future, most likely.
Father Time is undefeated. Is he coming for Merrifield? It appears so, but the Royals' most reliable player has managed to do a good job staving him off. In order for that to continue being the case, the Royals need to keep him where he's at now. While Merrifield is declining in some regards, he's as good as ever in others. Playing to his strengths simply makes sense for everyone involved.