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It is time to talk about Bobby Witt Jr.’s defense

It has been not good

Kansas City Royals third baseman Bobby Witt Jr. (7) reacts after committing an error during the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City Royals third baseman Bobby Witt Jr. (7) reacts after committing an error during the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball America’s 2022 scouting report on Bobby Witt Jr. comes in at 262 words; it lauds his work ethic, speaks to his fantastic 2021 Minor League Baseball campaign, and explains his unique offensive skill set. But it spends less than 20 words on his defense, simply saying this:

Witt is the complete package on defense at shortstop with steady hands and a strong, accurate arm.

Similarly, Baseball America’s 2021 scouting report for Witt gave him a 60 fielding grade and a 60 throwing grade and said only this:

There is no doubt about him defensively. He projects to be a solid shortstop with elite hands, a good first step and good body control, rounding out the package with a plus, accurate arm.

On the offensive side, Witt has been about as expected. It’s a hard adjustment to big league pitching, and Witt has already made improvements—in the first half of his 2022 season so far, Witt slashed .228/.269/.439. After June 5, he’s hit .287/.332/.464. Rookies generally don’t hit the ground running, and Witt’s best offensive season is almost certainly in front of him.

The same can’t be said on the defensive side, where Witt has legitimately been the worst defensive shortstop in Major League Baseball. In hindsight, you could argue that that Baseball America and other outlets were a little too dismissive—or not quite critical enough—of Witt’s defensive shortcomings.

But Witt has made some truly wonderful highlight plays. Remember the beginning of the year? The play at the plate he made in a fantastic emulation of Patrick Mahomes? That was cool.

Witt has also made a number of other really solid plays darting to his right and throwing across the diamond to nab the baserunner at first base, like this one:

So why, then, has he been so bad at shortstop this year? Don’t take my word for it—take the defensive statistics. If you’ve read any of my articles before, you know that I like to average out Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating in order to take into account both systems, which I then turn into a rate stat on a per 1000 innings basis. By this measure, AVGDEF/1000, Witt has been far and away the worst defensive shortstop among the 26 who have accumulated 500 or more innings at the position this year.

Is there a hole in Witt’s glove?

Name Team Pos Inn DRS UZR AVGDEF AVGDEF/1000
Name Team Pos Inn DRS UZR AVGDEF AVGDEF/1000
Andrew Velazquez LAA SS 709 13 1.5 7.3 10.2
Ha-seong Kim SDP SS 676.2 6 5.4 5.7 8.4
Miguel Rojas MIA SS 776.1 9 2.9 6.0 7.7
Amed Rosario CLE SS 816.1 6 4.9 5.5 6.7
Nico Hoerner CHC SS 770.1 10 0.2 5.1 6.6
Jeremy Pena HOU SS 749.1 12 -2.9 4.6 6.1
Jorge Mateo BAL SS 837.2 8 1.2 4.6 5.5
Isiah Kiner-Falefa NYY SS 836.1 6 0.9 3.5 4.1
Willy Adames MIL SS 723.2 4 1.4 2.7 3.7
Carlos Correa MIN SS 695 3 1.1 2.1 2.9
J.P. Crawford SEA SS 867 3 1.3 2.2 2.5
Xander Bogaerts BOS SS 883.2 -1 4.8 1.9 2.2
Dansby Swanson ATL SS 979.1 4 -0.7 1.7 1.7
Corey Seager TEX SS 833 0 2.5 1.3 1.5
Francisco Lindor NYM SS 940.2 1 -0.2 0.4 0.4
Jose Iglesias COL SS 782.1 -4 2.8 -0.6 -0.8
Trea Turner LAD SS 934.1 -3 1.5 -0.8 -0.8
Elvis Andrus OAK SS 816.2 -4 2.6 -0.7 -0.9
Kyle Farmer CIN SS 755 -1 -0.6 -0.8 -1.1
Didi Gregorius PHI SS 506 -5 1.5 -1.8 -3.5
Geraldo Perdomo ARI SS 750.1 -4 -3 -3.5 -4.7
Tim Anderson CHW SS 691 -7 -2.6 -4.8 -6.9
Javier Baez DET SS 786 -5 -6 -5.5 -7.0
Brandon Crawford SFG SS 614.1 -6 -3.4 -4.7 -7.7
Bo Bichette TOR SS 927 -7 -7.6 -7.3 -7.9
Bobby Witt Jr. KCR SS 558 -16 -5 -10.5 -18.8

The individual components of Fangraphs’ defensive grade aren’t kind to Witt’s shortstop range, but positioning and small sample size quibbles can be a factor for sample sizes larger than Witt’s 500-plus innings at short, so I won’t latch onto them too much. What isn’t really forgivable: Witt is making errors at an extremely high rate. With 14 errors, Witt is making an error every 40 innings or so, more than double the rate at which his peers make errors. That’s bad!

Even worse is the type of error that Witt makes most often: they are plays that he really, really should be making, fundamental screwups that you just can’t do. Witt’s five throwing errors aren’t great but are only somewhat below the league average in that regard, while his nine fielding errors are more than any other shortstop.

What is going on with Witt’s defense, then? Because it’s not just Baseball America that thought Witt was a lock for shorstop. While Fangraphs gave Witt lower fielding and throwing grades than BA—45 and 50, respectively—they, too, thought Witt would be a “viable defensive shortstop.”

While at times his throwing stroke looks atypical, these issues seem to have resolved and Witt has consistently made strong, accurate throws to first, at times using his athleticism to do so in spectacular fashion. Witt has experience all over the infield and debuted as a third baseman, but became the favorite to receive the lion’s share of shortstop reps when Adalberto Mondesi tore his ACL. Mondesi’s injury was a body blow to the Royals’ defensive flexibility but doesn’t impact Witt’s projection at all, and it might actually relieve some of the mental load that would have come with playing all over the field.

The Royals have the luxury of sticking Witt at shortstop and hoping he works through it, because bad teams have that superpower, one that they use far too little. But any negative description of Witt’s shortstop defense would not be too harsh: bad, terrible, embarrassing, unplayable.

Would Witt be better at third base? Absolutely. Not only does it require less technical skill than shortstop does, but we even have some data that Witt is better at third base. Per AVGDEF, Witt’s third base defense is at -0.1 runs per 1000 innings—or, essentially, right at league average, over 18 runs better than his shortstop defense. That’s the difference between a below average center fielder and peak Lorenzo Cain.

Ultimately, it may be personnel that contributes to the decision. The Royals have no third baseman tree at the moment and are lacking a long-term solution there. Meanwhile, Nicky Lopez has proven to be a perfectly viable starting shortstop, a position that actually suits his bat better. Additionally, Maikel Garcia and perhaps even Adalberto Mondesi provide additional coverage at short.

This is one of those decisions that I’m glad I don’t have to make. Witt certainly has the raw defensive skills to be a good shortstop. At the same time, his defensive miscues have nothing to do with those skills. And while he might be a better fit at third base, Witt has more value at shortstop.

What to do? Well, watch and see, for now. Hope it’s just growing pains. Because it’s always frustrating watch an athletic talent not quite be what you expect on defense.