Most sports are a race against the clock, a race against time. How many baskets can you score before the buzzer ends? Will you hold off against a furious attack until the refs end stoppage time? Can you get up to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball for a last-second field goal attempt?
Baseball, on the other hand, is not that. It is a sport that is agnostic to the whims of time—even with this year’s rule changes aimed at speeding up the pace of play. Rather, baseball is a game of resource management, where each team has a stack of 27 outs and the team that uses theirs most efficiently wins.
There’s a stat for this: on base percentage, or OBP, which is a measure of how often a player gets on base. But while the stat is very clear, it doesn’t do a good job of communicating the crucial part of the equation: those 27 outs cannot be replaced. Outs are baseball’s currency, permanently spent once it leaves a team’s wallet. The inverse is a better way to think about it—how often does a player avoid using those limited resources?
The problem here is that avoiding outs is not always interesting. As humans, we tend to focus on big events. Home runs, steals, flashy defensive plays, and the like are more likely to stick. Our brains are poorly situated to recognize that a player who hits fewer home runs and steals fewer bases, but who walks 15 times a month instead of five times a month, is probably the better player.
Enter Bobby Witt Jr., who does so many flashy things at such a young age. Dave Holtzman, a producer at Bally Sports KC, encapsulated the flash bang nature of Witt in a tweet where he pointed out that Witt was the first player ever with 10 home runs and 16 stolen bases by May 29.
Bobby Witt Jr. has 10 HR & 16 SB on May 29...— Dave Holtzman (@DHoltzy) May 29, 2023
13 AL/NL players ever with 10+ HR & 15+ SB before June
2nd #Royals player (Bo Jackson in 1989)
1st player EVER at 22 years old or younger
h/t @Sportradar pic.twitter.com/rrNQDrklS3
But the truth is that Witt’s approach is not working, and he has been an objectively below average hitter over his career. Why? Well, if we’re going to do counting stats, let’s count outs made. Since last year, Witt leads all players with fewer than 900 plate appearances in total outs made.
Outs made, 2022-2023, < 900 PA
|Bobby Witt Jr.||KCR||205||873||4.7%||21.8%||0.286||95||623|
|Cedric Mullins II||BAL||209||896||8.4%||18.6%||0.328||112||602|
|Jurickson Profar||- - -||201||874||11.0%||16.4%||0.329||103||586|
Of course, I know that OBP is a better statistic, and by that measure Witt ranks sixth-worst among all qualified hitters since last year. But if we’re going to be talking about non-rate stats and how many whatevers Witt has accumulated, we need to talk about the fact that Witt spends outs like they’re burning a hole in his pocket, left and right. This year, nobody in baseball until Kansas City’s two consecutive games off has made more outs than Witt.
I know that I will be unsuccessful in convincing a bunch of people that on base percentage is as important as it is, especially the ones who will only read the title of this article and fire a knee-jerk reaction tweet or Facebook comment that reveals they don’t know what they’re talking about (when that happens, feel free to screenshot this paragraph as a reply). But that doesn’t change the fact that Witt’s disastrous on base ability is a huge damper on his ceiling. That is reflected in the hard stats.
To be fair, I think the Royals and a big section of Royals fans understand that Witt is, in some way, struggling. After all, he’s hitting .228, and since that batting average is a much more commonly known stat among casual fans, that part is harder to ignore. But the general consensus among those people usually goes something like this: Witt is young, he’s doing a lot of things really well, and if this is his floor, his ceiling will be exciting when he gets there.
I think this is a mistake. Displaying this flawed of an approach in so many plate appearances is generally not a good sign when it comes to future production. I took a look at the top 10 position player MVP finishers from last year and their first handful of seasons up until they accrued at least 600 plate appearances. Witt’s performance sticks out, and not in a good way.
Bobby Witt Jr vs 2022 MVP Candidates
As you might expect, MVP contenders tend to do well from the starting gun. A few of last year’s best position players did struggle. But Jose Altuve, Xander Boegarts, and Jose Ramirez followed the same path to stardom: they took the rest of their game and added a significant power increase to it.
Witt, however, already has power, and while he might add more power, it is very hard to suddenly turn into a patient hitter. Realistically, Witt’s only reasonable route forward to a good OBP is to hit for a better average, and to expect a career sub-.250 hitter to consistently hit in the .280 to .300 range is a longshot.
And this brings us to the crux of the issue: what do we expect out of Witt? What do we want out of Witt? And what do the Royals and Witt himself want out of Witt? I compared him to MVPs because everything you read about Witt goes on and on about how wildly talented and athletic he is.
If the Royals want to hold him to that standard, it might be time to act on it. Witt basically needs to overhaul his approach to become great, which probably means a trip to Omaha to do so. That, of course, is risky. It’s a PR move the Royals don’t want to make, and there’s no guarantee that it would work—and could make things worse. But is everyone ok with Witt being Javier Baez or Alcides Escobar rather than Trevor Story or Trea Turner?
It would certainly help if Witt didn’t have to shoulder the burden alone, but that’s what he’s doing. The Royals’ young hitters are worse across the board than last year: Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey, Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares, and MJ Melendez have all regressed. So has Witt, obviously, but if he had some cover other than Nick Pratto, maybe this wouldn’t be as big of a deal.
Unfortunately, we are in the situation we are in and it cannot be helped. Maybe Witt is trying to do too much, but relying on that excuse seems disingenuous considering how you can’t go a few metaphorical feet on the internet without bumping into an article that mentions Witt’s “makeup” and “composure” and “professionalism” due to his MLB upbringing.
So yes, Witt’s hitting is a problem. It might not be if he has a breakout. But, as with pretty much everything relating to a franchise that hasn’t had won more games than it lost in literally eight consecutive seasons, I am disinclined to give much benefit of the doubt. The Royals are as bad as they are for more than one reason. Witt leading the team in plate appearances and getting on base at a .266 clip is one of those reasons. I don’t disagree that it stinks. But it’s where we are.