Tweak in hitting mechanics key to Merrifield's success

Rookie changed his approach in October, has reaped the rewards

Tweak in hitting mechanics key to Merrifield's success

KANSAS CITY -- Royals rookie sensation Whit Merrifield knew his baseball career was at a crossroads last October.

Merrifield, 27, had been a ninth-round pick in 2010 out of South Carolina, and, among scouts, he had the reputation as a nice little player through six seasons in the Minors. He was a .270ish hitter with occasional pop, and some versatility in the field.

Merrifield wanted more.

Merrifield decided to rebuild himself and his swing. First, he wanted to get stronger, so he embarked on a conditioning program that included multiple workouts a day along with seven meals per day. That's not a typo -- seven meals a day.

Merrifield started each day with nine eggs and oatmeal for breakfast. Then chicken, rice and vegetables three times a day. Then some red meat. And several protein shakes.

Merrifield's solo homer

"There was a lot of prep work each day," Merrifield said, shaking his head.

It took weeks for his digestive system to adjust to that much intake followed by intense weight-lifting. But it worked. Merrifield put on 20 pounds of muscle, mostly in his upper body. He now carries about 190 pounds on his 6-foot frame.

The next step for Merrifield was revamping his swing. He had grown tired of hitting weak flares to right field and slow rollers to shortstop with his traditional two-handed rollover swing.

Merrifield doesn't remember who specifically inspired him to try the top-hand release approach to hitting, but he thought he'd give it a whirl. In that technique, the batter brings the bat through the zone with both hands. But upon contact, the hitter releases his top hand and pulls with his bottom hand to create lead-arm extension through the zone and toward the pitcher.

The result, when done properly, is more backspin on fly balls, thus more distance. It also allows the barrel of the bat to stay in the zone longer, creating more consistent contact.

Merrifield's first career homer

Legendary hitting coach Charley Lau taught the principles of top-hand release to the Royals in the 1970s. Hall of Famer George Brett attributes that method to making him one of the all-time greats. In today's game, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Abreu, and Albert Pujols are just a few examples of top-hand release hitters.

"I thought there had to be a better way to stay through the zone, stay going forward to the pitcher and driving the ball to all fields," Merrifield said. "You can do it with both hands but I wasn't succeeding, so I needed to change."

Starting in October, Merrifield and his father, Bill, a former Minor Leaguer in the Angels and Pirates system, worked endlessly. Merrifield hit off the tee every day and took batting practice three times a week.

"Even though I was comfortable with it going into Spring Training, my first couple of swings in games I went with two hands for some reason," Merrifield said. "I had to almost make a conscious effort in spring games to let it go."

But about a week later, Merrifield had his "aha" moment.

"There was a game in Spring Training in Surprise [Stadium]," Merrifield recalled, "and I was down two strikes ,and the pitcher threw a fastball kind of middle in, and I almost got beat on it. But I got my hands in and hit it, and it short-hopped the wall in center. To see it go that far on that pitch -- that's when I knew this was working."

Merrifield's triple into the gap

Merrifield has noticed his power numbers spike. His previous high in homers in the Minors was nine in 2012.

Before he got called up by the Royals in May, Merrifield was on pace for a 20-plus-homer season in Triple-A.

And Merrifield already has 10 doubles, one triple and two homers with the Royals in 28 games. He has a .483 slugging percentage -- a career high -- to go with his .333 average.

"He's playing like he belongs here," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "This kid's not a flash in the pan."

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.