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How can Bobby Witt Jr. improve in 2023?

Can he build on a solid rookie season and be even better this season?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

No, Bobby Witt Jr. didn’t win the Rookie of the Year Award in 2022. That honor went to Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners. MLB Pipeline’s 2022 Preseason Top Prospects list named Witt the game’s top prospect. Rodríguez came in at number three. Expectations were sky-high when both started the 2022 season on Opening Day in the Major Leagues.

Julio brought home the hardware and helped his franchise see playoff baseball for the first time in over two decades. “Junior”, on the other hand, played on a 97-loss team that didn't even sniff contention. Team performance aside, was his rookie campaign a disappointment?

Grading Bobby Witt Jr’s Rookie Season

Witt certainly earned his way to the Major Leagues last season. He dominated both AA and AAA pitching in 2021, slashing .290/.361/.576 with 33 home runs and 29 stolen bases between the two levels. That level of success at the plate didn’t exactly translate to the Major Leagues last season. He slashed .254/.294/.428 over 150 games with the Royals in 2022. He walked less than he had in the minor leagues and hit for less power. His wRC+ of 99 ranked just 99th among qualified hitters last season.

However, in just his age-22 season, can Witt’s rookie season be seen as a disappointment? Since 2000 there have been 186 qualified rookies aged 22 or younger. His 2.3 fWAR last season ranks 36th among them. It shouldn’t be lost on Royals fans how difficult it is for a player that young to adjust to Major League pitching. His path to the Major Leagues, including a canceled 2020 Minor League season, was hardly ordinary. With that in mind, what Witt accomplished becomes even more impressive.

Just nine qualified rookies since 2000 have posted a 20/20 season — at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Bobby Witt Jr. is among them. Of those nine, just five have done so aged 22 or younger: Mike Trout, Julio Rodriguez, Bobby Witt Jr., Andrew Benintendi, and Victor Robles. The season that Rodriguez had last year shouldn’t be ignored and was certainly deserving of the hardware. However, Witt’s performance was a rare feat that shouldn’t be lost on fans in Kansas City.

How does Bobby Witt Jr. get better in 2023?

Assuming that 2022 was essentially the floor for Witt at the major league level, the future looks very bright for the young shortstop. Baseball Savant grades him above average in many key categories, including Average Exit Velocity, expected Batting Average - xBA, expected Slugging - xSLG, and Barrel %.

He barreled the baseball two percent more than the league average and hit the ball harder than the league average last season. Most of Witt’s batted ball measurements are encouraging. More concerning was his tendency to chase pitches and the drop in walk rate. He chased 34.7% of the time in 2022, north of the league average mark of 28.4%. This tendency to chase impacted his walk rate. In the minor leagues, he walked 9.0% on average. Then, in the major leagues last season, he was down to just 4.7%.

Will Witt be able to chase less and walk more? Walking more should be the recipe for him to reach another level at the plate in 2023. Beyond just the walks, however, lies even more potential. We’ve already established that he chased too many pitches in 2022. However, he also made contact chasing pitches often last season. His Chase Contact % was 61.0%, north of the league average mark of 58.3%. Not only did he chase too many pitches, but he hit many of them leading to weak contact or easy outs.

Can Witt improve? I have no doubt. We already saw signs of improvement as last season progressed, which offers a lot of optimism for what 2023 will hold. As the season progressed, he improved his chase rate. In July last season, Witt saw the fifth largest drop in chase rate versus April 2022. His monthly splits tell a story as well:

  • March/April: .216/.247/.311, 2.5% BB%
  • May: .243/.295/.534, 5.3% BB%
  • June: .263/.318/.485, 8.1% BB%
  • July: .294/.326/.435, 3.3% BB%
  • August: .238/.268/.429, 2.6% BB%
  • September/October: .264/.303/.360 5.3% BB%

It was clearly up and down, as you’d expect from such a young hitter. The progression from April to June was substantial, and the decline later in the season shouldn’t erase optimism. If Witt can be the type of hitter at the plate that we saw in June last season, then he has a great chance to be even better than last season.

It’s a small Spring sample, but he’s been pretty great in five games thus far in Surprise as well. He’s slashed .385/.429/.538 with a 7.1% BB%, 7.1% K%, and one triple. He’ll head to the World Baseball Classic soon for Team USA which should help him get more Spring at-bats against good competition. Hopefully, his improvements continue and translate to the start of the regular season.