Marcus Semien guessed Whit Merrifield. Merrifield, for his part, guessed Semien. They were both right.
As baseball’s 2021 regular season nears the finish line, only two players — of the nearly 1,500 who have put on a big-league uniform this year — have appeared in all of their team’s games. Two players, in other words, who are on pace for 162. And if you think that doesn’t matter — just a quirk or a fluke or a bit of incidental trivia — consider that they’re each apparently keeping close enough tabs on the situation to correctly identify the one other guy in their tiny cohort.
“A lot of guys don't anymore. A lot of teams are all about their load management recovery, similar to what the NBA has done,” Semien said earlier this month.
That’s true — the emphasis on availability above all else is becoming an aberration — but the days of yore when everyone played every day are largely apocryphal. Even in earlier eras of fewer lineup iterations, The 162 Club was an exclusive one. At the absolute extreme upper end, willpower needs assistance from things like luck and circumstance.
If you look at the number of players who appear in 162 games per season averaged over each decade, the rate is decreasing, especially if you consider that there are more teams than in previous eras. But the numbers were never all that high. For the past 60 years, only a handful of players have appeared in all of their team’s games in a given season. Playing every day is nearly impossible. Adding in that it bucks the recent trend, and that (almost) no one played more than 60 games last summer, even the single-season gauntlet is a stunning achievement. There will be fewer 162-game seasons this year than no-hitters or 40th home runs. That Semien and Merrifield were both part of the five-player 162 Club in 2019 is a testament to durability as a distinct skillset, or at least a mindset. This doesn’t happen accidentally.
Semien doesn't want a day off
The first time Semien made it a conscious goal to play 162 games was 2016. He was 25, playing for his hometown Oakland A’s, just 16 miles from where he had grown up watching his mother work tirelessly as an insurance agent.
“She's done it forever,” he said. “She didn't take days off. She got us ready for school. She went to work. She picked us up. She was like clockwork. And that's something that was just so ingrained in me.”
That year he came up a little short, playing 159. In 2017, a wrist injury kept him out for half the season. In 2018, he and his wife had a baby.
“So I missed two days,” Semien said. “I played every game that I was in the building.”
One-hundred-fifty-nine. Again. “But I feel like I could have done it that year.”
In 2019, he did: 162 games, a breakout performance, and a third-place MVP finish heading into his walk year. Seeing that number on the stat line only validated how much he valued it. But then in 2020, the season was drastically shortened and Semien regressed, struggling through 53 games.
The A’s didn’t make Semien a qualifying offer because they didn’t want to pay him that much if he accepted, which thrust him out into the market one extremely weird year in baseball and the world removed from his best season.
“I called my agent and said, ‘I feel really good, it feels different. I feel like I could get back to what I did in '19, maybe you think about a one-year deal as opposed to some of the other stuff we've been seeing,’” Semien said. “It's always a risk. There's always risk involved here with injury and all that. But I knew with my history and being able to play every day and be ready, it was something I could do.”
Which is how he ended up on a one-year, bet-on-himself deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, telling manager Charlie Montoyo the first time they met in spring training about his plan to play every day.
“I could tell that’s just what he wants, it’s what he does. He’s here to play every game,” Montoyo said. “He doesn’t need a day off, which I love guys like that. But then when you go through a season you figure, 'Man, you're gonna have to have a day off sometime.'”
So Montoyo tried, on May 1, sitting Semien, who ended up pinch-hitting.
“He was mad at me that day,” Montoyo said. “So that’s the last day off I gave him.”
“After that one day, it hasn't really come up again,” Semien said.
What keeps Merrifield in the lineup
Merrifield never made it his goal to play 162 games. Well, sort of.
“I guess it's more of an expectation for myself than a goal,” he said.
“I really don't think about playing 162. You know I did, maybe, a couple years ago when I hadn’t done it before. But at this point, it's just about getting ready to play that day and doing what I have to do to help the team win.”
A couple years ago, when he hadn’t done it yet, is the last time Merrifield had a day off. That was June 14, 2018, and he doesn’t remember it because it was 471 games ago. Since then, the Kansas City Royals second baseman has built the longest active consecutive game streak, one getting-ready-to-play-that-day at a time.
“And if, at the end of the day, I’m fortunate to still be healthy, I do what I got to do to get ready to play tomorrow.”
It was Merrifield’s dad who told him your best ability is your availability. “But, I mean, I've never needed any extra motivation to go out and play. This is something that I enjoy doing and I want to do.”
A ninth-round pick who spent six full seasons in the minors and didn’t establish himself as an everyday big leaguer until he was 28, Merrifield doesn’t want to miss a single opportunity to live out his childhood dream.
It’s not that Salvador Perez — the 31-year-old catcher and DH with 47 home runs who has appeared in all but one of the Royals’ games this season — sets a certain standard that Merrifield has to live up to. (“He's a physical specimen,” Merrifield says.) And it’s not that there’s a top-down culture in Kansas City of adhering to an old-school emphasis on grit. (“I don't know the back and forth between the front office and strength training staff and the coaching staff. And, you know, frankly it's above my pay grade.”) Merrifield insists he just doesn’t want to be on the bench.
“In this lifetime you get a small window to play in the big leagues,” Merrifield says. “Why would you want to spend days of that voluntarily not playing?”
And he doesn’t believe a day off would do him much good anyway.
“The load management, I don't really buy it. I don't buy that whole concept.”
How Semien, Merrifield achieve durability
Recently, before a game, Montoyo talked about how young Blue Jays infielders Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio were learning to manage their own health and stamina down the stretch of what is the first full season for the entire infield except Semien.
“So these guys gotta learn on their own how to hit [batting practice] less, take less ground balls, or whatever it is,” he said. “Because if you go by Semien, you will do it every day. That guy’s steady, he hits every day, he takes ground balls every day, but not everyone is Marcus Semien.”
Semien’s steadiness extends beyond the nine innings of a daily baseball game. Even in the depths of the season, he trains nearly as hard as he plays, with a daily routine that takes him from soft tissue work and a soak in the hot tub through to a postgame meditation to wind down for the day. He loves a regimen, relishes the programs provided by conditioning coaches and mental skills coaches. He never skips optional field work and never misses a rep. In some ways, joining a new team was exciting because it gave him access to a new set of training perspectives.
“And I will do it, just give me everything you got.”
Royals manager Mike Matheny didn’t even really think about Merrifield’s streak — its start predates his tenure with the team — until they were deep into the season and he realized his second baseman hadn’t had a day off yet this year, and never really looked like he needed one.
“I brought it up before,” Matheny said. “‘Tell me how much this means to you. What do you think? How do you feel? Let's make sure we're being smart, protecting your body.’ But the easy part about it is I just haven’t seen anything.”
He considers Merrifield’s durability to be one of the All-Star’s unique tools, just like his speed or defensive prowess. Merrifield credits a certain amount of luck for his opportunity to stay on the field and that’s certainly part of it, but his manager sees a rare talent, a gift really, for being able to weather the inevitable foul balls off the foot or awkward slides that wear on a body over the season.
Which is not to say that Merrifield will be able to coast to 162 on his preternatural pain tolerance.
“Part of it is giftedness, part of it is toughness,” Matheny said. “But a lot of it is really the sacrifice of getting the rest once you leave here, doing the things in the weight room that allow you to continue. So it's a major commitment and investment.”
The long road to 162
Semien says April, surprisingly enough, is the toughest stretch to get through as an everyday player. Spring training outings are often shorter, you’re still ramping up, and so when the nine-innings reality of the regular season hits, it can hurt. By June, “The body just kind of gets numb to baseball.”
That’s exactly when the full length of the season looks the most daunting to Merrifield, though. The excitement of the early months have worn off but it’s not clear yet whether you’re playing for a postseason push. You’re not even halfway and already tired.
To mentally overcome the inevitable malaise and accumulating aches, the only two players still chasing 162 take disparate approaches.
Merrifield tries not to think beyond that night’s game. One-day-at-a-time type stuff. Focusing on the pitcher he’ll be facing and what it takes to be a successful professional baseball player for the nine innings that stand between him and the next day.
“At the end of the season, if I'm fortunate — knock on wood — enough to get to 162, I'll be proud of it,” he said. “But really it's just not on my mind daily. There's just so many other things to worry about.”
But Semien sees an even bigger picture. He looks past the regular-season horizon.
“My focus is actually on playing til the last game of the World Series,” he said as Toronto battles for an AL wild-card spot. “That would be an extra, I don't know how many games. You put your mind towards that date instead of the end of the season.”
September, then, isn’t even the finish line. One-sixty-two is a nice number to see on a stat line, but it’s not the goal.