As a rookie, Bobby Witt showed that he had power. Since the year 2000 over five thousand rookies have debuted in the big leagues. He ranked 60th, top 1%, in extra base hits among those rookies as a 22 year-old by posting 57 in his first year. Unfortunately, his defense and lack of plate discipline made his first year a bit of a disappointment. I think the last six weeks have shown that he is turning the corner though, and the Royals may actually be developing an All-Star caliber player at the very least.
Bobby has used a motto for a number of years, “You either win or you learn.” There is something in the makeup in some of the truly elite players that I always get excited to see. Mike Trout had weaknesses in his game, and came back the next year and fixed his game. He fixed his throwing arm in the outfield. He worked on his base running. He figured out how to hit high fastballs (like Bobby!). Trout could basically take any weakness and somehow fix it. Elite player just just keep grinding no matter how talented they are, and now Witt seems to have some of that DNA working for him.
Bobby’s defense was bad last year. Now he is basically league-average by Baseball Reference’s dWAR. He ranks as the fifth-best shortstop in the majors according to Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average and sixth according to Fangraph’s Defensive Runs Saved. He makes better throws and gets to more balls than he did last season. He is looking like he could be a plus defender a year after being one of the worst defenders in the league.
When this year began, Bobby was still struggling at the plate some. Especially chasing high fastballs and breaking pitches down and way. Now his chase rate is declining and it is paying dividends:
In the first 50 games of this season Bobby was still swinging at pitches out of the zone above 35% of the time. In June that rolling average dropped below 35% and then cratered down into the mid-20s. His wOBA, unsurprisingly, jumped and has maintained a level around or above his average for over a month.
This was not all awesome. His slash line in June was .280/.336/.380. His on-base percentage was finally in a solid place and the highest it had ever been for a month, but the power had diminished considerably. That’s okay though, if you are sacrificing power to select good pitches and fix your approach, then it is likely the power will come back once the new approach solidifies. And boy has that power come back over the last couple of weeks.
In July Bobby’s slash line is sitting at .370/.392/.804! He will not be maintaining that line, but he has racked up 4 doubles, 2 triples, and 4 homers over 12 games this month. That is a XBH pace of 135 per 162 games. He is tied for the league lead in triples, and has rest of season projections have him pacing for 25+ home runs and around 65 to XBH. That is legit power for a 23 year-old playing a premium defensive position.
I would not say he is a finished product or anything, but let’s take a look at his Fangraphs swing rate heat maps to see what has changed.
The first map is from March through May. The second is June and July so far. There are a couple of big changes in what pitches he is swinging at. The biggie for me is the fastball up out of the zone in the middle. Not right above the zone, but in the second grouping above the zone. He was swinging at that pitch 43% of the time early in the season, and has cut that swing rate in half the last month and a half. He cut the adjacent up and in by 10% too. The other high pitch swings both in and out of the zone but closer are all down too, though not as drastically.
Another area that really stands out are pitches inside that are balls. The upper two squares inside at strike zone height went from 70ish% swing rates to 30, and the lower two dropped, though only 10% or so, not as aggressively. Middle in he is still swinging about half the time, so it has not all gotten better, but laying off of bad pitches in a five to ten zones that are problems for him is a great start.
Six weeks is not enough to know that this is going to stick, but I am optimistic. His plate appearances have just looked better consistently. If he can maintain an OBP above .310 the rest of the way while keeping the extra base knocks coming at a decent clip, then he is going to finish the year in the 110 to 120 wRC+ range. His BABIP (.289), xBA (.293), and xSLG (.535) all say that he maybe has been a little unlucky on top of that. That would be a nice jump from last year when he was right about average.
He is still 23, and could grow into more power, and his willingness to work to improve makes me think he can continue to grow the on-base skills to some extant. That is the makings of a 4+ WAR player for sure. That is generally the cut point for an All-Star caliber player. If he can find a way to push the on-base to .330 consistently, then at his peak I think he will contend for an MVP award at some point since one year with a little luck could push him into 900 OPS territory. A shortstop with 35+ HRs and decent on-base is definitely a possibility here.