SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Royals manager Mike Matheny doesn’t like to make player comparisons.
But Matheny admittedly couldn’t help himself when talking about super-utility man Whit Merrifield.
“It takes so much of you as a player to stay locked in all the time mentally at the plate,” Matheny said. “But guys like Whit, they get three hits, and while other guys may back off a bit and relax, he doesn’t.
“The best I ever saw at that was [Albert] Pujols. I don’t bring up other guys very often, but he was the best for 10 seasons. If he went 0-for-4, don’t talk to him before that fifth at-bat, because he will go after that fifth at-bat like his family won’t be provided for if he doesn’t get a hit. I don’t know who taught him that.
“But I see that in Whit -- that professionalism, that never-give-in style of at-bat.”
Told of Matheny’s comparison to Pujols, Merrifield was astonished.
“Pujols? Really? Wow,” Merrifield said, smiling.
Merrifield does proudly concede that staying hungry and mentally focused each at-bat has been something he has worked on. How else do you lead the Major Leagues in hits with 192 and 206 the past two seasons?
“My goals are the same as every year, just continue to get better,” Merrifield told MLB.com. “I know it’s cliché to say it, but I want to have more good at-bats over the course of a year. More specifically, less times where I feel I got myself out. I feel I’ve done a better job over the years of not giving at-bats away.
“That’s always been a goal. As you get older, you get more disciplined trying to get better at-bats. That’s where I’m at.”
Merrifield, who obviously has emerged as one of baseball’s best overall hitters, said his hitting approach has evolved.
“When I first got here, I had to hit to stay in the lineup, so there was always that pressure,” Merrifield said. “Now that I know I’m in the lineup every day and I can focus just on better at-bats.
“I’m glad [Matheny] said that, but I know I can do even more. That’s my goal.”
Matheny also admires the fact that Merrifield has embraced a leadership role in the clubhouse. Lockering next to Alex Gordon in Spring Training and during the regular season has helped in that regard.
“Whit is special,” Matheny said. “He’s one of the best hitters in baseball. He has such a passion for the game. And he has leadership qualities, like Alex [Gordon] does. He’s got an edge to him, too, that’s apparent.”
It’s still early in camp and early in Matheny’s managerial career with the Royals, but he already is experiencing one common denominator with previous manager Ned Yost -- finding the right adjectives to accurately describe Merrifield’s value to the team.
“He’s just a star you can put in different places,” Matheny said. “That’s so valuable. Following him through the [31-game hitting] streak, that consistency is so big with him.
“He’s a catalyst. He likes that, he likes setting that tone. He’s got pitch recognition. He’s got it all. He puts together winning at-bats, all the time. And other players look up to him for that.”
Merrifield, who also led the Majors in stolen bases in 2018 with 45, sees even bigger things on his horizon in 2020, mainly because the Royals’ lineup is much deeper and potentially more potent this season. That will benefit Merrifield as well.
“We have guys like [Hunter] Dozier who is now established,” Merrifield said. “We have [Ryan] O’Hearn ready to make a jump. We have [Adalberto Mondesi] doing what he does, we have [Jorge Soler], we have [Ryan] McBroom ready to prove himself. We get Salvy [Perez] back and [Maikel] Franco.
“Definitely one through nine, we’re as solid an anyone now. Our numbers may be skewed because of where we play, but we can compete with anyone I feel, talent-wise.”