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Bobby’s defense has me at my Witt’s end

Digging into the data leads to some unexpected points

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SPORTS-BBA-ROYALS-WHITESOX-8-TB Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Entering the 2022 season, I was confident that Bobby Witt Jr. would be a plus defender. Why shouldn’t I have been? Everything I saw and read about him in the minors told me this. Eric Longenhagen said, “he is very likely to not only stay at shortstop but be quite good there.” MLB Pipeline stated, “There’s no question Witt will also be able to stay at shortstop.” Keith Law, “his hands and feet make him a plus glove at shortstop.” Alex Duvall, “Even at worst, he’s probably a 20/20 guy that plays great defense.” I had no reason not to like his defense.

As the season progressed, however, we saw something very different. Witt was not good. He was not merely average, nor even below average. He was among the worst defensive shortstops in the sport. 24 guys played at least 800 innings at shortstop in 2022. Among them, Witt was 24th in Defensive Runs Saved, 21st in Ultimate Zone Rating, and 23rd in Outs Above Average. More basic metrics don’t paint a better picture; he was 22nd out of those shortstops in fielding percentage and only two players in the majors committed more errors. There’s no way around it: Witt’s defense was a problem.

There seemed to be little doubt about Witt’s defensive ability when he was in the minors, yet he was a mess in Kansas City. What happened, and where should Witt and the Royals go from here? Those questions are not easy to answer, but that won’t stop me from trying. I’ll circle back to the defensive metrics later, but for now let’s review some film.

We’ll start by reviewing all 19 of the errors that Witt made throughout the season. There’s obviously a lot more to defense than errors, but these are discrete events that make for a good starting point.

4/22/2022: Throwing error, 3B

Witt fields this ball rather awkwardly, as if he got a poor read off the bat. Julio was credited with a single here, but Witt exacerbates it by opting for the spin throw, which was probably not the move. Poor reaction and instincts.

4/27/2022: Throwing error, 3B

Witt makes a really nice play here ranging into left field, but then inexplicably spikes the ball on his attempted throw back to the infield. Ryan Raburn vibes.

5/20/2022: Throwing error, SS

A 104.5 mph one-hopper off the bat of one of the fastest players in the league. Witt mishandled it initially and rushed the throw to try and beat Byron Buxton. This is a tough play and he would have been better off just putting this one in his pocket.

5/30/2022: Throwing error, SS

Moving across second base, Witt bounces the throw trying to turn two on the speedy Myles Straw. This was not a good throw, but a big league first baseman should be able to pick that.

6/6/2022: Fielding error, SS

Booted a routine groundball, no excuses here.

6/8/2022: Throwing error, SS

A high infield chopper off the bat of Cavan Biggio, who runs well. Witt really had no chance of getting an out here but tries to force it. It also sure seems like Carlos Santana didn’t even try to field that throw.

6/25/2022: Fielding error, SS

With the infield in, he knocks down a groundball to his right but can’t handle it cleanly. He may have been thrown off initially by Hunter Dozier, close to his right, also lunging for the ball, but this is a play he needs to make.

6/27/2022: Fielding error, SS

Charging in, he quite simply took his eye of the ball. Maybe he was thinking he could turn two and got caught in between, but this is a rookie mistake.

7/11/2022: Fielding error, SS

Here he fields the ball cleanly but loses it on the transfer.

7/12/2022: Throwing error, SS

Smoothly fields the ball to his left, then sails the throw to first. Willi Castro isn’t slow by any means, but Witt probably rushed this throw.

7/12/2022: Fielding error, SS

Tough couple days for Witt. Playing in, this is a bouncing ball to his left that he should get, but it seems like he was thinking about making the play at home before he actually fielded the ball. Mental mistake.

7/15/2022: Fielding error, SS

Witt boots a grounder that should by all means be a double play ball. With a slow runner at first and a slower runner at the plate, he has plenty of time here but rushes it anyway.

7/17/2022: Fielding error, SS

Maybe this was an in-between hop, but this is a groundball right to him. Gotta make this play.

7/23/2022: Throwing error, SS

This was a tough play with the way Singer lollipopped the ball to Witt at second, made tougher by Roman Quinn’s slide forcing Witt into the air. He should be able to make a better throw here, but I’m surprised Pratto wasn’t able to pick a hop that big.

8/2/2022: Fielding error, SS

Covering second on a potential double play, Witt awkwardly received the flip from Dozier and just cold dropped it. It seemed like he might have been thinking about the transfer before making the catch.

8/6/2022: Fielding error, SS

Witt tries to field the short hop on this chopper to his right, but he probably would have been better off coming in and playing the big hop. Also may have been getting ahead of himself thinking about the double play.

8/16/2022: Fielding error, 3B

A bouncer to his left, looks like he tries to pick the short hop and it just gets past him.

9/17/2022: Fielding error, SS

So Witt should probably make this play, but also what the hell is Nate Eaton doing running in front of him like that as the ball is coming in?

10/3/2022: Fielding error, SS

A grounder to his left that he plays in maybe not the most optimal manner. Yet another short hop that he doesn’t handle.

A few observations from these errors:

  • Throwing seemed to be an issue early on, but he seemed to really tighten those up down the stretch as only one of his seven throwing errors came after the All-Star break.
  • Eight of Witt’s 19 errors came in a roughly one-month span between June 25th and July 23rd. This means 42.1% of his errors occurred in a span of 15.1% of his games played. Any guesses what was happening in that time?
  • A lot of these errors seem like mental mistakes. Poor reads, attempting and failing to play the short hop, looking to throw before fielding the ball, that sort of thing. Witt still has the physical tools to be a great defensive shortstop, so one could argue he just needs reps to improve his instincts. On the other hand, one would think his instincts would already be there given how much shortstop he played in prep ball and the minors.

Errors were a huge issue for Witt and did a number on his overall defensive value. That said, it’s not crazy to project improvement on that front with better decision-making. He has the physical tools of a plus defender, now it’s a matter of him developing the skills to become one.

I know many Royals fans are ready to pull the plug on Witt as a shortstop and move him to third base. Given the emergence of Maikel Garcia, it makes some logical sense to move Witt down the defensive spectrum. I am not in this camp. This is partially because I’m not as high on Garcia as some are. But the main reason is that I’m not convinced that Witt will be sufficiently improved defensively at the hot corner to justify moving him off his natural position in favor of an inferior prospect. To illustrate this, let’s circle back to the defensive metrics.

At first glance, the metrics favor moving Witt to third base:

Defensive metrics per 1000 innings

Position DRS UZR OAA
Position DRS UZR OAA
At 3B -9.01 -2.93 -6.76
At SS -21.80 -7.27 -10.56

All three of these metrics suggest that Witt was better on a rate basis as a third baseman than as a shortstop. However, these numbers don’t tell the full story. Thankfully, Statcast provides even deeper defensive data. I have a couple points that I will illustrate with this data. First, from the perspective of actual fielding position, Witt’s biggest problem was not actually shortstop. It was second base:

Outs Above Average per 100 fielding attempts

Position OAA
Position OAA
As 3B -1.89
As SS -1.18
As 2B -4.94

Witt struggled mightily when playing in the shift on the right side of the infield. Roughly half of his OAA damage came when playing as a de facto second baseman despite having a little under a quarter as many attempts at second as at shortstop. While he was still a negative at the natural shortstop position, he was more effective there than he was at second or at third base. The disparity is even more stark when looking at routine plays. Here are the same stats as in the previous table on fielding opportunities with an estimated success rate of at least 75%:

Outs Above Average per 100 fielding attempts, estimated success rate >=75%

Position OAA
Position OAA
As 3B -4.76
As SS -1.27
As 2B -3.51

Once again, shortstop is his least problematic position based on these metrics. This does not intuitively make sense. Third base is lower on the defensive spectrum than shortstop, and moving to third base is a common position change for guys that can’t quite cut it at shortstop. So why does Statcast data suggest Witt was less effective at third base than shortstop? This brings me to my second point: the data suggests Witt’s skills don’t play well at third base.

On the whole, Witt was just fine coming in or going back on balls in play. In 319 such attempts at any position, he totaled -1 OAA. It was the plays that forced lateral movement where Witt struggled most. Would you like to guess where on the field he struggled the most on these particular plays?

Outs Above Average per 100 fielding attempts, lateral towards 1B or towards 3B

Position OAA
Position OAA
As 3B -6.98
As SS -0.72
As 2B -8.57

Second base wasn’t pretty, though with a sample size of just 35 attempts. Third was nearly just as bad. It seems based on this data that Witt’s range plays much better at shortstop than it does at third base. Perhaps his reflexes just aren’t built for the hot corner, as his results on hard-hit balls are not pretty:

Outs Above Average per 100 fielding attempts, exit velocity >=95 mph

Position OAA
Position OAA
As 3B -9.09
As SS -1.39
As 2B -11.43

All of this comes with the small sample size disclaimer, as Witt has not logged even a thousand innings at any one position on the field, though I am more confident evaluating Statcast data with such a sample size than I would be with other defensive metrics. My overall takeaway from the data is that letting Witt begin the season as the starting shortstop is the right move. Counterintuitively, he could benefit from the shift ban by not having to play on the right side of the infield as often. I won’t rule out the possibility that he doesn’t improve defensively and remains a butcher out there in 2023, but I’m not convinced the solution is as simple as moving him to third. This is supposed to be a franchise player for the Royals; moving him off his natural position now would be a knee-jerk reaction. The team is going nowhere in 2023. Let Witt man shortstop until he proves that he can’t.