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Bobby Witt Jr. has looked like the second coming of Eric Hosmer, which is not ideal

Overpromise, underdeliver?

Bobby Witt Jr. #7 of the Kansas City Royals bats against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium on April 19, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Bobby Witt Jr. #7 of the Kansas City Royals bats against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium on April 19, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Eric Hosmer Discourse has faded in the years since he signed with the San Diego Padres and especially since the Padres jettisoned him, dooming Hosmer to be a nomad. With this hindsight, most of the previously controversial parts of the Hosmer Discourse have become less so, the big one being that Hosmer just wasn’t that good.

Yes, Hosmer had big moments. Memorable moments. Wonderful moments. But those were mostly just that—moments. Hosmer was a limited and streaky hitter whose tools were flashy but whose production was mediocre. Per Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Hosmer ranked 107th out of 129 players with at least 3000 plate appearances in his time as a Royal. He only ranked 67th in wRC+. He was outside the top 50 in home runs hit because he had the 11th highest ground ball percentage. His defense had, shall we say, mixed reviews.

Ultimately, part of the reason why the Royals labored to win games in Hosmer’s time with the Royals is that he did not play the way the Royals needed to. In his seven seasons with Kansas City, Hosmer had a negative WAR three times. Lord knows they had plenty of players who could do that already; they needed more out of their young star.

I have lately thought about Hosmer a lot when it comes to the Royals’ next young “can’t miss” prospect-savior: Bobby Witt Jr. Both were top-three draft picks out of high school in their respective drafts. Both were top high school players with loud tools, strong leadership skills, and quick conquerors of Minor League Baseball. Both were shouldered the responsibility of leading the next generation of Royals into the playoffs.

And both had or have fundamental flaws in their game to severely limit their ceiling.

Witt’s flaw is a little more nebulous than Hosmer’s. While Hosmer hit the ball on the ground far too often, Witt just can’t get on base. Last September, I wrote about if Witt could become a star if he never got on base at a good clip; my conclusion was that Witt would almost certainly be a reliably above average player with an on base percentage close to .330. But this year is more of the same: an OBP south of .300. Witt is not just bad at getting on base—he’s one of the worst in the league at doing so.

Worst OBP among qualified hitters, 22-23

Brice Turang 22 72 6.9% 30.6% 0.224 0.278 0.328 67 0.2
Javier Baez 164 670 4.8% 24.2% 0.236 0.278 0.378 86 2.1
Jorge Mateo 168 596 5.4% 26.3% 0.234 0.282 0.402 92 3.9
Cody Bellinger 165 642 7.3% 25.4% 0.223 0.282 0.411 93 2.8
Eduardo Escobar 152 602 7.1% 23.8% 0.231 0.285 0.416 99 2.2
Jeremy Pena 159 659 3.9% 24.4% 0.248 0.287 0.424 100 3.7
Trent Grisham 175 620 11.3% 28.5% 0.187 0.289 0.356 87 2.3
Yuli Gurriel 157 624 5.3% 12.5% 0.244 0.290 0.361 85 -0.8
Bobby Witt Jr. 173 728 4.9% 21.0% 0.253 0.294 0.430 99 2.9
Ryan Mountcastle 167 707 6.5% 25.0% 0.247 0.297 0.429 104 1.5

Like Hosmer early in his career, Witt has thus far managed to avoid broader criticism for his flaws. In part, this is because Witt’s strengths are clear and obvious. He hits the ball very hard. His defense has been a little rough, but the fundamental tools are absolutely there and he is capable of producing some of the craziest highlight reels you’ll ever see from a shortstop. Witt is also the fastest player in baseball.

Witt is also very young, and as we’ve seen with Jarred Kelenic this year, sometimes it takes a little while for things to click. Still, Witt, once again, lags behind most of his peer group. Dating back to last year, there are 16 qualified hitters who are now in their age-25 or younger seasons. Witt ranks 11th in WAR.

Young qualified hitters since 2022

Andres Gimenez 168 649 6.3% 19.9% 0.290 0.365 0.449 133 6.5 23-24
Julio Rodriguez 154 663 7.2% 25.5% 0.278 0.339 0.499 141 6.2 21-22
Adley Rutschman 135 571 14.5% 17.9% 0.260 0.371 0.447 136 6.1 24-25
Bo Bichette 182 801 5.7% 21.1% 0.295 0.337 0.473 131 5.3 24-25
Steven Kwan 170 744 10.2% 9.4% 0.294 0.371 0.389 119 4.4 24-25
Juan Soto 177 767 20.5% 15.6% 0.236 0.397 0.443 140 4.2 22-23
Alejandro Kirk 157 607 12.7% 11.2% 0.281 0.376 0.406 128 4.1 23-24
Ronald Acuna Jr. 142 642 10.3% 22.1% 0.281 0.366 0.434 123 3.7 24-25
Jeremy Pena 159 659 3.9% 24.4% 0.248 0.287 0.424 100 3.7 24-25
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 183 810 8.4% 15.7% 0.282 0.348 0.485 136 3.6 23-24
Bobby Witt Jr. 173 728 4.9% 21.0% 0.253 0.294 0.430 99 2.9 22-23

What’s the culprit of Witt’s on base issues? Yes, plate discipline and swing decisions are part of it. Witt swings at pitches out of the zone too much; the median qualified hitter since last year swung at 31.4% of pitches out of the zone, but Witt swung at 37.3% of pitches out of the zone. Witt also makes less contact, swinging an whiffing at 11.5% of pitches versus the qualified hitter medium at 9.9%. The result of this aggression is a low walk rate, which for his career is a tick south of 5%.

But the biggest culprit is that Witt can’t hit fastballs. Statcast assigns run values to every pitch type for both hitters and pitchers, and does so on a per 100 pitches basis. The median qualified hitter since 2022 produced 0.52 runs per 100 fastballs. Witt, on the other hand, was the seventh-worst in baseball, producing -0.97 runs per 100 fastballs.

Interestingly, Witt is among the top 30 producers against one pitch type: the changeup, where Witt is producing 2.14 runs per 100 pitches. Normally, this would be fine—hitting changeups is good. But paired with his performance on fastballs, it makes me wonder if Witt’s performance against changeups is more of a byproduct of the fact that he can’t quite get around on fastballs.

In any case, Witt is young enough and talented to improve. But in another parallel with Hosmer, I worry that Witt and the Royals coaching staff might not recognize the severity of Witt’s deficiencies and not risk pushing to overcome them. Right now, Witt is a fine and big league caliber starting shortstop. But if he wants to be a star and get that nine-figure contract, Witt needs to fundamentally improve his game to get on base a hell of a lot more than he does right now.

Yes, there is a lot wrong with the Royals right now. It might seem that pointing out flaws in one of the only true MLB talents on the roster is wasting time. That, however, is not the case. Kansas City needs Witt to be a star, and to do that, he’s got work to do.