Whit Merrifield is the Royals’ best player and has been for a few years. As a result, commentators fixate on him as a model for any player who kinda, sorta fits a similar mold.
Good at a few positions, not great at any. Some pop, not great pop. Good baseball know-how. Really good hit tool. That’s the Merrifield profile in its broadest characterization.
Within the Royals organization, 2020 draftee Nick Loftin gets tagged with the Merrifield comparison a lot, and it’s easy to see why. Like Merrifield, he might be able to play multiple positions. Like Merrifield, he’s not super toolsy. And like Merrifield, he’s got good baseball instincts and what looks like an above average (if not plus) hit tool. He’s good at many things, but not great at any one thing … a lot like Merrifield (though Merrifield is in fact great at one thing … getting hits).
But maybe focusing on their similarities draws our attention from the interesting differences between the two. Start with their bodies. Loftin is a longer, leaner athlete—for now anyway. He’s taller with longer arms and legs than Merrifield. This may afford him the opportunity to put on a few pounds of muscle as he continues to mature.
On defense, Merrifield is billed as the ultimate super utility player, but he was turned into that in the minor leagues. He became a super utility player when the organization thought he might not hit enough to play in the big leagues every day. And he notably doesn’t play one very important position: shortstop. Loftin primarily played shortstop at Baylor and continues to play there as a professional. Commentators reference Loftin’s defensive versatility because he played the outfield with Team USA in 2019, but it remains to be seen how skilled of an outfielder he is or if he has the arm to play third base in the big leagues.
Perhaps the starkest difference between the two (besides prestige and expectations, remember Merrifield had virtually no expectations at Loftin’s age), is the way each swings. Merrifield’s swing seems specifically designed to achieve an optimum launch angle.* This has given him a line drive rate greater than 30 percent in each of the last three seasons, including 32.4 percent in 2019 (second highest in the league). This allows Merrifield to get hits without hitting the ball all that hard (he consistently ranks in the bottom 20 percent in average exit velocity).
*I know Merrifield has an anti-analytics streak, but somehow he stumbled upon a swing distinctly designed for the Analytics Age.
Loftin’s swing isn’t as fine tuned or consistent as Merrifield’s and may never be. He doesn’t have the same consistent tilt and often gets on top of balls that if he had a little more tilt to his bat might be line drives. He’ll almost certainly have higher ground ball rates than Merrifield unless he finds a way to more consistently get elevation. And higher ground ball rates will probably mean fewer hits and lower batting averages.
On the plus side, Loftin may also have higher exit velocities. To the eye anyway, it looks like he is capable of hitting the ball harder than Merrifield. So, if he does manage to refine his swing, Loftin may be able to tap into a little more raw power than Merrifield. Loftin has longer levers and has occasionally put serious juice into some impressive homeruns.
Honestly, the more I look at Loftin, the less I see Merrifield and the more I see Nick Ahmed. I think Loftin will be a little worse defensively than Ahmed and a little better offensively because Loftin seems to have better bat-to-ball skills, but they have similar body types and swings.
Of course, right now, it’s Spring Training, a time for hope and optimism. So, if you want the rosy picture, there’s a chance Loftin puts on muscle, fine tunes his swing, and starts driving balls all over the yard. Maybe he ends up being a .290/.350/.460 guy playing solid defense at short or second. Call that his 90th percentile outcome.
But even if it all turns into sunshine and rainbows for Loftin, which I hope it does, it’ll probably still look different than Merrifield.