Nearly four years later, Whit Merrifield has still been in the lineup every day for the Kansas City Royals. And the franchise’s all-time leader in consecutive games played pushed his ironman streak to a new milestone on Saturday night at Coors Field.
Merrifield became the first player in Royals history to play in 500 straight games and extended the longest consecutive-games-played streak in the majors since Prince Fielder played in 547 straight from Sept. 14, 2010 through May 16, 2014.
That leaves Merrifield, who passed former Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar last season for the franchise record, still 2,132 games behind Cal Ripken’s iconic major-league record streak of 2,632.
“It’s a nice, round number,” Merrifield said of the significance of 500. “I mean, besides that, nothing more than when I go to pass Esky. I’ve been putting myself in a situation for 500 games to be in the lineup and kept myself physically and mentally ready every day. It’s not my job to make the lineup. It’s my job to play.”
For the two-time All-Star, his reasoning for never wanting to come out of the lineup is pretty simple. It took him an extended period of time to get to the majors, so he’d rather spend every second he can on the field.
A former ninth-round draft pick of the Royals in 2010 out of the University of South Carolina, Merrifield didn’t make his major-league debut until May 18, 2016.
Even after playing 81 games in the majors in 2016, the Royals had him start the next season in Triple-A.
His streak defies the accepted mode of operation spurred on by performance science departments in recent years. Clubs have imposed regular days off upon players in the name of maintaining health over the course of the season.
“It’s definitely an era of load management, I guess is what people say,” Merrifield said. “I don’t have interest in taking days off. I really spent a lot time playing where I didn’t want to be, in the minor leagues, and then got to the big leagues and don’t have any interest in wasting any of those days.
“So I’m proud of putting myself in a position where these guys trust me to be in the lineup every day. That’s all I can do.”
Since his debut in 2016, Merrifield has collected 930 hits in the majors. That’s the fourth-highest total in MLB during that span. Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon led the majors in that respect.
Merrifield has led the majors in hits twice (2018, 2019), and he also led the majors in stolen bases in 2018.
“I’ve gotta tell you, even last year it wasn’t on my mind,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said of Merrifield’s streak. “The reason I bring that up is he just was playing well and didn’t look tired. … He just played well. He knows how to take care of his body. That combined makes it really easy to see him in the lineup.”
Merrifield’s streak started on June 25, 2018. Current Royals Salvador Perez, Hunter Dozier and Adalberto Mondesi were in the starting lineup that day, and pitcher Brad Keller started the game.
During his streak, he has started both ends of a doubleheader 10 times, most recently during the current road trip against the Baltimore Orioles on May 8.
Defensively, Merrifield has played six positions during his streak. The only positions on the field he has not played are shortstop, catcher and pitcher.
“And he’s a really good option in multiple places, not just the versatility thing,” Matheny said. “A lot of it comes down to the kind of at-bats he’s taking. We’ve seen it in my short stint here, he’s been so consistent.”
Merrifield was an AL Gold Glove finalist at second base last season, his first time playing primarily at that position for the entire season.
His versatility has been a key component in him being a viable option in the lineup on a daily basis, and it has given the Royals flexibility.
“Versatility is also taking over this game,” Merrifield said. “It’s becoming very popular to where it’s important to have versatility on your roster. Yeah, me being able to move from position to position and being comfortable doing that has definitely helped keep me in the lineup. I think it’s a valuable asset to any team.”