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How to find the next Whit Merrifield in college baseball

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It will require a bit of study, but guys like this are around. You just have to know where and how to look.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Baseball fans can be very amusing. Somewhere around July 2018, the coolest thing in the galaxy became Whit Merrifield . As a very good player on a fifth-place team, the fans of the better teams in the league found themselves perfectly comfortable with subscribing to their own version of the rip-off trades for the Kansas City second baseman. The line of thinking is: “Since he’s having MLB success, and he’s about ready to start getting paid, I might as well patch together a not-too-disgusting melange of inexpensive assets to mansplain Royals fans into why my fake-trade is best for them. And for my team, as well.”

After a fashion, I looked up Merrifield on my favorite sources, and ran into something amusing. The college version of Merrifield is rather plentiful on the college panorama today.

It would be very possible, and advisable, for teams to draft three or four players like Merrifield every season. Many probably do. The argument could be made that David Bote and Trent Giambrone (who is representing as the Cubs’ next Bote) are poor-man’s versions of Merrifield already.

As per my protocol, I went to The Baseball Cube, which tracks college statistics for MLB players, such as available. As Merrifield attended South Carolina, his numbers are on display. I learned a few things rather early, one of which might confound you. However, before I dig further into Merrifield, I return to the premise of baseball scouting.

When teams assess talent for the draft, it’s more archaeology than fishing using dynamite to bring fish to the top of the water. Information is available. The information needs to be assessed, as accurately as possible. Then, the next weekend, more information becomes available. Which new data makes sense, in comparison to the old data? The player who is on a hot-streak. Is it explainable and sustainable? The guy who’s slumping. Is he broken? Or might he be a buying opportunity if he... Lights dynamite. Tosses in water.

Assessing talent is prioritizing. In a recent assessment, someone equated a “30 percent likelihood of occurrence” as being “when Draymond Green chucks up a three-point attempt in a basketball game.” You don’t expect it to go in, but it isn’t stunning when it does. Assessing baseball talent in a draft scenario is grabbing the 70 and 80 percent likelihood guys when they’re available. Then, when they’re gone, getting about the 40’s and 50’s.

Get the fifteen percent guys before the eights, and the fives before the twos. To effectively do that, all the information, on field and off, needs to be sorted. Such to the extent a team can do that, and develop what they do poach, having seamless runs of talent leading to the upper minors and MLB per diems is made easier. Those who don’t pull that off, pay a price. This is much more fascinating to me than “which reliever to offer a two-year contract.”

***

Merrifield, as with World Series MVP Steve Pearce, attended the University of South Carolina, with two years between Pearce leaving and Merrifield arriving. As a freshman outfielder in Columbia, Merrifield violated the protocol that quite a few wave about as if an ax. “Never bunt. Bunting is bad baseball, and wastes....” Grabs for dynamite.

As a freshman in the SEC, Merrifield had 23 successful sacrifice bunts. And lived to tell about it. That season, he hit .326 for the Gamecocks, who reached the Field of 64, but not Omaha. (Justin Smoak, with 23, led four teammates with 18 or more homers.) The next season, as a sophomore, Merrifield hit .340, and only bunted successfully five times. In his junior campaign, he hit 13 homers, 15 sacrifice flies, and was drafted in the ninth round, receiving a $100,000 bonus from Kansas City in the 2010 draft.

When I see numbers like Merrifield’s, I consider him to be an eight-to-twelve percent shot at being a valid MLB player. My feel might not be accurate, but looking at his college numbers, I see a good offensive player with some pop (those were the days when the bats added 20-30 feet to fly balls), and the ability to play some small ball, as indicated by the bunts in his freshman season.

As it turns out, Merrifield was a useful player, though not particularly flashy, through the Royals pipeline. For instance, in the Carolina League (the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ league), Merrifield played in two different seasons, as a second baseman/left fielder. In his first campaign, his OPS was .706. In his second, .722. He didn’t smack at all of “going to be the player everyone covets.”

He spent parts of three seasons in Double-A, sporting a .722 OPS. He hit nine homers over that stretch. In his full campaign in Triple-A, his OPS was .681. It looks like you thought it would have been higher. Part of baseball is about learning necessary lessons. Some of that involves launch angle. Most of it involves other things.

Upon reaching MLB, Merrifield became, largely, better than he was in minor league ball. This is a bit of a rarity, but it makes sense. Merrifield is a well-rounded player. Once he knew who he was going to be facing, and who his sidekicks were, he could “grow into a role,” and got rather good at it.

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How can you, or anyone else, find the next Merrifield? Depending on how specific you’re requiring someone to be, it’s either rather simple, or impossible. Merrifield played college ball for three years in the best league there is. For three years, he was a useful hitter, showed some speed, and some ability to do the unpopular things. The hardest part about finding a current and reasonable comparison for Merrifield is watching college baseball.

College coaches love to trot out guys like Merrifield 50 plus games per season. As underclassmen, they let the bigger names grab the headlines. As they mature into upper-classmen, they tend to do the bopping, after more time in a college weight room. Teams in the Top 25 need players like Merrifield to be successful year-in and year-out. And, most of the time, the next Merrifield fizzles along the way somewhere in minor league pipelines.

This isn’t a sort of code violation, or a dismissive of the players who don’t reach MLB. Merrifield is a bit of an outlier. I’m not a Royals guy, but I’m confident that if I’d been listening to announcers talking about him on his way up, I’d have a few stories about fighting through adversity. After all, he was a decent player in Double-A and Advanced-A. He wasn’t a rated prospect, nationally, ever, by anyone.

Finding the next Merrifield is about finding the player more interested in learning and improving than being the headliner. It’s equal parts “Where did that come from?” and “There was never any real reason to release him.” A bit like a college championship tournament, continuing through a pipeline is “Survive and advance. Survive and advance.” Until you’ve been discarded, or you can’t advance anymore.

Do you want to find the next Merrifield? Or a player that will be what Merrifield has become by around 2025? Merrifield, and players like him, are about outworking the opposition. He might be a right fielder at a college in Kansas, or a third baseman at a school in Texas. However, if you wait until he’s had a year with a 5+ wins-above, you’re too late to get him as a bargain.

To find a Merrifield, choose a college squad. Choosing a squad won’t find you a Merrifield, but ignoring college ball will almost clinch you won’t find one. The Merrifield type will be hitting top five for any of fifty teams in the college game this year. My eventual reality is that people don’t want to find teams with players who want to mesh together well as a cohesive unit. Unless that cohesive unit is their MLB squad.

Players like Merrifield are eight percent chances to be MLB regulars. Or three percent chances. Some are 26 percent shots. People who still characterize the draft as “shooting craps” want the likelihood more like the fish biting after you throw in the lit dynamite. That isn’t how it works. Teams that prioritize and develop talent get players like Merrifield to flow naturally through their system. Sometimes.

To find players of his ilk who are easily obtainable, follow a college team, and mind both squads. That annoying guy that makes a play in the late innings in two games of three to cost your side a series might be a Merrifield. And, if you don’t like the baseball panorama enough to mind the college game, then wait until the other team has a guy you covet, and act like you have no idea how these things happen.