A look back at Merrifield’s humble chase of the unattainable

KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) — Before almost every one of his last 143 at bats, Royals infielder Whit Merrifield has gone through the same motions:

Touch bat to the back of the left cleat twice.

Adjust the helmet.

Tighten both hands over bat handle, then check the barrel.

Dig right foot in box, then left.

These habits came as naturally as breathing, and at least once per game they yielded the same result — a hit.

The only thing more predictable than the pre-pitch rituals were the postgame scrums that surrounded Merrifield’s locker at Kauffman Stadium. A flurry of microphones, iPhones and shouldered cameras surrounded him, all waiting to ask about the storied hitting streak that was nearing — and would eventually surpass — George Brett’s franchise record of 30 games.

Merrifield would always make a point to comment on the goals and performance of the team first, something that spoke to his role as a leader with the Royals. Eventually, with a little prodding, he would circle back around to the streak before calling it a night.

“See y’all tomorrow,” Merrifield would say with a light chuckle.

This was the scene until Thursday, when Merrifield went 0-6 in a 10-inning contest against the Seattle Mariners. The streak would end in an almost-poetic fashion in the bottom of the tenth, with Merrifield swinging hard through a pitch to strike out, ending both his hitting streak and the ballgame.

It was devastation in Kansas City, and rightfully so.

After all, how can you not root for someone chasing one of sport’s most unattainable records? It’s a right of passage to root for the underdog in sports, only in this case, everyone’s the underdog.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS

A professional baseball player successfully hitting a baseball is an unlikely occurrence, though it may not always feel that way. Based on the league average in 2018, a batter had just a 24.8% chance of recording a hit in any given at bat.

This is part of the reason why Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio was able to capture the attention of the nation when, in 1941, he tallied a hit in 56 consecutive games. It’s one of baseball’s most unbreakable records, and for good reason.

Statistically speaking — It’s as close to impossible as you could imagine. No other player in MLB history has come close to 56, and only one player has broken 40 since 1941 (Pete Rose, 44 games).

So was it realistic to think that Merrifield could’ve been the one to do it? Could we see another streak before October? We can test the improbability of eclipsing DiMaggio with a few simple formulas (sorry in advance, mathphobes).

Merrifield has a lifetime batting average of .294. If we make a base approximation that he gets on base in 29.4% of all at bats (and subsequently records an out in 70.6% of at bats) and that he averaged approximately four at bats per game, we can determine the probability of Merrifield failing to record a hit in a specific ballgame. Assuming independence, that would be (.706)^4 = .248.

To find the probability of him getting a hit in any given game, we can subtract that result from one: 1-.248 = .752.

Now, by assigning an exponent to that percentage (which will represent the length of the hitting streak) it is possible to say that the probability of Merrifield recording a 31-game hitting streak was (.752)^31 = 0.015%

A tenth of a percent.

The odds of Merrifield matching DiMaggio? Less likely: (.752)^56 = 0.000012%

What’s equally impressive to Merrifield matching these improbable percentages is how he did it.

During his 31-game hitting streak, 29% of Merrifield’s hits came on pitches outside of the strike zone, most by a considerable margin.

As well, he legged out four balls in play that stayed within 80 feet of home plate. That includes the record breaker, a strong bunt down the third base line.

CURTAIN CALL

Following all of the improbability, the hype and wrestling with the idea that you are now a franchise leader after spending seven years just trying to earn a spot on an MLB roster, it would have been understandable for Merrifield to gloat a bit. After all, he earned it.

But instead, the same humble infielder took the podium at Kauffman Stadium.

“I don’t even really know how to describe the emotions and feelings that I have going on right now,” Merrifield said. “To do something nobody in the history of this franchise has done when one of the greatest players of all-time played for this franchise for a long time — it’s kinda surreal.”

He then went home and released a thank-you note to Royals fans on his Twitter account.

“Thank you to everybody for your support through these last 31 games,” Merrifield wrote. “While it ended shorter than I would of liked and we haven’t got off to the best start, stepping in the box and hearing your cheers last night is a moment I’ll always remember. Thank you for sharing that ride with me. Joe D is safe…for now.”

If you appreciate nothing else about the streak, appreciate this — In a sporting climate full of screaming matches and online beef, Merrifield represents a refreshing taste of level-headedness and humility in the Royals locker room.

He took a moment that should have been all about himself and shared it with his community.

Merrifield is the type of athlete you want to build a team around, and the Royals plan to do just that.