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The Complicated Debut Season of Bobby Witt Jr.
It was VERY successful. And it also was kind of disappointing in ways.
I think baseball fans today expect more out of rookies than ever before. Some of that is due to the constant exposure to them that we didn’t have previously. There are multiple outlets covering prospects extensively when it used to be one or even none. So we know about the top guys coming up and they’re hyped up nationally. Some of it is that there are young players throughout the league who came to the big leagues and made an instant impact in a way that very few had before. And that’s become much more common. So when a rookie comes up and is generally “only” solid, it’s almost seen as a disappointment. I think people were expecting Bobby Witt Jr. to be an All-Star immediately. And instead, he was simply solid.
The overall line - .254/.294/.428 with a 99 wRC+ and 102 OPS+ - screams average. The broadcast, when hyping him up, stayed away from rate stats because rate stats don’t put him toward the top of the rookie class. Only Steven Kwan from the Guardians had more plate appearances than him and no rookie played more games. So the counting stats added up.
That isn’t a knock on Witt. For one thing, actually being on the field is very important. You might recall another former top prospect who played shortstop who hasn’t been able to stay on the field. But being able to be out there is legitimately worth celebrating. And with that, he was able to put up some really good counting stats.
He was third among rookies in home runs. He led all rookies in steals. He led in RBIs. He was second in both doubles and triples. He was third in runs scored. But the wRC+ was 27th. The OBP was 41st. The SLG was 17th. The ISO was 21st. You get the idea. There is absolutely no shame in being just fine as a rookie, but I think it’s also fair to say that he came up well short of expectations when you look at it from the rate stat perspective. Let’s break down his season a little bit.
The year started with Witt at third base and he made a spectacular play within the first 19 innings of the season.
You might recall that was the 10th inning of a 0-0 game between the Royals and Guardians. There were runners on first and third with one out. Giving up a run in that situation isn’t the worst thing in the world since the Royals were starting with a runner on second as well, but getting that runner out was absolutely massive. And they did end up winning that game in the bottom half of the inning.
He looked good at third. That defense with him at the hot corner, Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second was pretty sharp. And Witt rated well at third in the first month of the season with one out above average there. He wasn’t even bad in May when he was playing a lot of third, but also shortstop. He was at zero outs above average in that month.
But then the struggles started. Witt was -3 in June, -4 in July, -4 in August and -2 in September/October. Why? There is no easy answer. Statcast will break down defense by going left, right, in and back. And each month it was a different issue for Witt. Personally I’d never heard any issues with his defense until late in the year last season when there was some talk of him wearing down a little bit. And that kind of matches what the Royals have said about his season. He dealt with shin splints, getting hit in the hand and then a hamstring injury that actually kept him out for a bit in July.
It’s interesting, though, because the more I think back on his defense, the more I think that maybe I actually buy the Royals excuses that I don’t usually buy. Is that because I want them to be right and that Witt can be a great defender or is that because they actually were right? Most of the issues came on plays that you feel like he easily should have made. This ground ball in Toronto was bad.
He boots an inning-ending double play from a slow runner. Is that concentration? Is that the game moving a little faster than he expected? I don’t know, but stuff like that is fixable. What you can’t teach is his ability to range deep to the hole to make a great play.
I know bad defenders can make good plays, but this one was really nice. And we saw that throughout the season. He made some great plays to his left and his right. I think we saw improvement as the season was going on and then maybe some struggles toward the last couple of weeks of the season that lend themselves to him wearing down a bit, though he was on the field.
The question defensively is where is his long-term home? In my opinion, I think he can be perfectly fine at shortstop but he can be legitimately great at third base. He has a strong arm, quick reactions and I believe his issues laterally can be overcome. He rated very well coming in, which can be important for a third baseman, so I love him there.
But it all depends on what the rest of the team can offer. If the Royals believe Maikel Garcia can hit enough to play shortstop long-term, that makes some sense. I don’t think Nicky Lopez can be counted on as an every day option and we know that Adalberto Mondesi can’t be counted on. But Garcia could be what pushes Witt to third. If, however, Garcia can’t hit, I think you find a third baseman (maybe he’s on the team already like Nate Eaton) and let Witt be fine at shortstop. That’s assuming he can get to fine, but I have confidence that’s possible.
Witt had some hit tool questions coming out of the draft and in his first professional season in 2019. They obviously weren’t huge questions because he still went second overall, but he did hit just .262/.317/.354 in 180 plate appearances in rookie ball that season with a whopping 25.6 percent swinging strike rate. I do sometimes wonder how he’d have fared in the low minors in 2020 if there had been a season, but when he got back to competitive games in 2021, the questions were at least quieter. As you know, he was outstanding at both AA and AAA and he saw his swinging strike rate drop to 15.7 percent in AA and 13 percent in AAA.
It wasn’t just the whiff rate there, but also the strikeout rate, which sat at 24 percent in AA and 22.5 percent in AAA. In today’s game, neither of those numbers are outlandish, but they also aren’t anything special. So that was maybe a bit of a concern, but I think his ability to make loud contact was something that had people a little bit less worried about how that might play in the big leagues. I don’t think the quality of contact translated quite as much as people had hoped it would.
His average exit velocity was in the 65th percentile. That’s good, not great. His barrel percentage was in the 59th percentile. Again, that’s good, not great. His hard hit rate was actually in the 43rd percentile. That’s not good. But his maximum exit velocity was in the 92nd percentile which is great. and I thought that his whiff rate being in the 45th percentile was actually a bit higher than I would have projected coming into the season.
I’ve written a bit about this before, but I wonder how much that hamstring injury in late July actually hurt him. Not physically hurt (though it did hurt, I’m sure), but in the numbers. Prior to the injury, he was hitting .258/.301/.459. That’s a 110 wRC+ with an ISO of just over .200. We can complain about the OBP and the strikeouts and all that, but that’s good stuff. After, he hit .248/.285/.382, which was a wRC+ of 84. It’s maybe a little convenient to say that a hamstring injury torpedoed the numbers, but the ability to do damage to the baseball was just…gone.
His average exit velocity prior to the injury was 90.8 MPH, which ranked in the 84th percentile. His hard-hit rate was 41.5 percent, which ranked in the 62nd percentile. His barrel rate was 8.9 percent, which was in the 63rd percentile. That may be a coincidence, but a hitter without his legs is one who might have some trouble driving the ball. And I think it’s maybe worth mentioning that he was 10 for 14 in steals after the injury after going 20 for 23 before it. I think it’s certainly fair to have questions about how much that hamstring impacted him.
We definitely hurt Mike Matheny and others talk about how the season was taking a toll on him. That, in itself, is maybe a little concerning because if the Royals are going to get where they want to get, Witt is probably the guy they need to be their best player and he needs to figure out how to maintain over the course of a full season. But still, it was his rookie year in the big leagues, playing a demanding defensive position and shifting between two spots on the field. And this is after playing a full season a year after playing zero competitive games. I think it’s certainly a fair expectation that 2023 will be better on that front.
While we can speculate on that, I think it’s fair to say that we know there’s thunder in his bat. This absolute missile off Jose Urquidy (a potential trade target!) was his farthest home run of the year at 443 feet and the fifth-hardest he hit at 109.8 MPH.
While we’re separating his season based on what I thought happened, I feel like after his slow 10-game start that he made an effort just to put bat on ball for a little bit. He had an 11-game hitting streak from April 21 to May 3 where he hit .342 but with just four extra base hits, including his first career home run. Again, this is totally arbitrary, but from after that first home run to the hamstring injury, he hit .264/.309/.487 with 14 doubles, four triples and 13 home runs. That’s a pace of 71 extra base hits over 162 games. It sort of felt like he was putting things together at that point. He had a 119 wRC+ in that stretch that was a little shorter than half of a season. And in that time, he started hitting the ball the other way.
Here’s his line drive/foul ball spray chart from May 4th through the hamstring injury:
And here’s the spray chart up to May 4th:
You can see a significantly more all-field approach. With his ability to do damage to the baseball, I think that’s a key for him. You may notice I didn’t include ground balls in those spray charts. Why not? Well, there lies the biggest problem for Witt, in my opinion. Here’s the spray chart:
He rolls over A LOT. To see that small of a number of grounders to the right side is kind of crazy. I’m not saying you necessarily want to see a lot over there. With his speed, a grounder to the left side could be a hit. But it’s a sign of a bigger problem. I’m actually a little surprised he wasn’t shifted much, though I guess a team might be concerned he’d push a bunt to the right side with his speed, but the issue here is that he might have made (you ready for this?) too much contact.
But wait, wasn’t contact supposedly an issue for him? Why yes, yes it was. And he did swing and miss a fair amount. However! Not all contact is good contact. Let’s say you get, oh I don’t know, a 2-0 fastball off the plate down by one run and he swings the bat to hit a lazy fly ball to center.
There actually aren’t a ton of examples of this, but in swinging at pitches in the shadow zones and the chase zones, he hit just .237 with a .350 SLG. He had an average exit velocity of 86.1 MPH and hit the ball 161 feet on average. He made 57 outs on pitches in the chase zone alone with an average exit velocity of 72.2 MPH. Yes, he had some highlight hits on those pitches because he’s extremely talented, but these aren’t pitches a batter can do much with, clearly. In a weird way, if he swung through more of these, he might actually get a better pitch to hit.
Witt did chase a decent amount. The approach wasn’t what you’d call “good” by any stretch. But I actually think he chased a little less than I maybe expected him to. His chase rate was 34.6 percent, which exceeds big league average by more than five percent. I guess I just had low expectations for that aspect of his game, but it wasn’t like he was Salvador Perez level or anything. His 34.6 percent was lower than Bryce Harper! I know the outlier doesn’t indicate success can be there, but that chase rate is not one that can hamper a career is my point. Jean Segura, Rafael Devers, Albert Pujols, Julio Rodriguez and Trea Turner were some of the names in the neighborhood where Witt was. So he could be better, but not terrible.
But he made contact 61.1 percent of the time when he chased. He hit .237 with a .328 SLG on balls outside the zone. You can succeed in making contact outside the zone. I don’t think Witt is that type of hitter. Harper chased more than Witt, but he made contact less. The same was true of Rodriguez and Turner. Devers was close, Pujols was somehow even higher on the contact. Segura is a different kind of hitter. If you want to do damage to the baseball, as Witt should and does, those just aren’t the pitches to do it on. It’s just not a spot to find results. If Witt had swung and missed at those a little more, you never know where the next pitch might have been. Maybe he does more damage. He absolutely needs to chase less, but if he whiffed more, it may have been a good thing. Not all contact is good contact.
This is the one area I have zero worries about. We all know he was one of the fastest runners in baseball with his sprint speed of 30.4 ft/s tied for second in all of baseball. He had 107 bolts, which was second behind only Trea Turner. A bolt is any run where the sprint speed is at least 30 ft/s, which is considered elite. His home to first time ranked 12th in all of baseball. He was 30 for 37 stealing bases. Witt can run the bases just fine. Fangraphs has a stat, BsR, that rates all runners in baseball. It’s the combination of weighted stolen bases, weighted GIDP runs and ultimate baserunning. Witt ranked fourth in all of baseball. He’ll slow down eventually, but there’s nothing complicated about his baserunning. He’s fast and he runs the bases well.
It isn’t easy to be a superstar offensive talent with a sub-.300 OBP. It’s possible if you can hit for crazy power, but it’s tough. If anyone has the skillset to be a difference maker with that low of an OBP, it could be Witt. He has elite, game-changing speed. He can hit the ball about as hard as anyone. When he homers, he hits it about as far as anyone, ranking fifth in average home run distance. I have my concerns about his defense, though I do believe he can be better there with a year under his belt. The good news, too, is that because of those tools he possesses, he has the floor of an above average regular, which would be disappointing given the pedigree, but still nice to know that there’s something you can count on.
But still, I do have my concerns about his approach at the plate. I think we all absolutely should because the approach is clearly lacking. I think it’s difficult to watch someone like Vinnie Pasquantino, as selective as he is, make contact the way he does and not wish he could give like 20 percent of that ability to Witt. There is a sharp contrast in the approach that is clear to anyone watching. And if Witt never takes that next step, it’s unequivocally because of that.
But at the same time, I also don’t think it’s fair to say definitively that he won’t take that next step. And that’s where this gets into the person over the data. I think the fact that he doesn’t chase totally wildly like some former top prospect shortstops this team has had leads me to believe that he can make improvements on some of the pitches he goes after while pitchers begin to be a bit more careful with him.
What I do believe in is Witt as a person and a worker. And I believe that as he shows the power is for real (and can maybe carry it through a full season), he won’t get challenged on the edges quite as much because of the risk of hanging those breaking balls. There is no data for this, but I think a full season of experience coupled with the way Witt works with his guys (like Bobby Stroupe, who has done some work with another big KC athlete) will lead to him being able to emphasize what he does well and close some holes on what went poorly for him. His 2022 was a bit complicated in how to evaluate it properly, but I’m personally quite excited to see how he returns in 2023.