What Obstacles Could Bobby Witt Jr. Encounter in His First Season with the Royals?

Without a doubt, there may not be a prospect in Kansas City Royals history who has been as hyped as infielder Bobby Witt, Jr.

Sure, Alex Gordon was once the No. 2 ranked prospect according to Baseball America in 2007 and projected to be the heir-apparent to George Brett at third base (Gordo eventually found a better fit defensively in left field). That being said, considering Witt’s age (21-years-old) and his position value (shortstop), there is a real “Royals Superstar” potential with 2019’s second-overall pick, and it seems like it’s not just the Royals fans who are envisioning a big rookie season for Witt in 2022.

On Jan. 19th, Baseball America released their Top 100 Prospects rankings, and Witt ranked No. 3 overall, behind only the Orioles’ Adley Rutschman (the No. 1 pick in 2019) and the Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez:

Baseball Prospectus also released its own Top 101 Prospects rankings on Thursday. In this set, from the more “analytically-inclined” baseball experts, Witt actually topped the list as the best prospect in baseball going into 2022:

It’s not just rankings where Witt shines this offseason. Fangraphs’ Roster Resource Royals depth chart projects Witt to be Kansas City’s starting third baseman on Opening Day (and batting 6th in the Royals lineup to boot). And ATC and Steamer have released their projections already for the upcoming 2022 season, and safe to say, Witt’s projections look incredibly optimistic, as evidenced from the data below:

  • ATC: 126 games, 22 home runs, 72 runs scored, 74 RBI, 16 stolen bases, .263/.324/.470, 113 wRC+, and 2.9 fWAR.
  • Steamer: 134 games, 24 home runs, 71 runs scored, 75 RBI, 18 stolen bases, .267/.321/.481, 114 wRC+, and 3.0 fWAR

If Witt lives up to his early projections, he could not only be a potential All-Star in 2022, but he could perhaps be the Royals’ offensive MVP by season’s end as well…

While doing so as a 22-year-old.

That being said, all this hype does beg Royals fans to ask the question:

What could get in the way over Witt living up to the hype next season?

Of course, Witt is coming off sensational campaigns in Double-A Northwest Arkansas (145 wRC+) and Triple-A Omaha (142 wRC+) last season, which bodes well for potential success at the Major League level as soon as next season.

On the other hand, hitting Major League pitching for any professional hitter is an adjustment, and Witt only has one full professional season under his belt (mostly thanks to the lost Minor League season in 2020). While it’s easy to imagine Witt to take the Major League world by storm next season, much like he did in Minor League Baseball a year ago, Royals fans could see Witt fall back to earth, especially if MLB doesn’t get much of a Spring Training due to the lockout.

Like any Royals fan, I do not want to see that happen. However, Royals fans also have to be realistic, especially considering the Royals’ history, especially in the Dayton Moore-era since 2006 which has had more disappointments than surprises.

Thus, in this post, I take a look at three possible obstacles Witt could face in 2022, whenever he should make his Major League debut.

Could Witt Experience Some Plate Discipline Struggles Early on?

In his professional debut in the Arizona Rookie League in 2019, Witt’s numbers were a lot more pedestrian, as he hit .262 with an 85 wRC+ in 37 games and 180 plate appearances. While Witt was a teenager who was just playing high school baseball a couple of months prior, it was a bit of a deflating debut, especially since there was so much “superstar” hype surrounding Witt when he was drafted second overall by the Royals in the 2019 June Draft.

One of the big issues with Witt’s performance in Arizona was his overly aggressive approach which produced a K rate of 19.4 percent, a BB/K ratio of 0.37, and a GB/FB ratio of 1.81.

While those numbers weren’t poor by any means (especially for a player immediately out of high school), the line wasn’t impressive, and there was concern that Witt’s overly-aggressive approach at the plate would be exposed once he faced better pitching in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues.

In addition, he also started pretty slow in the Arizona Rookie League, as evidenced by this Tweet below (though as the Tweet also says, he made proper adjustments over the course of the season). It is possible that the same could happen to him whenever he makes his Major League debut, as was the case in debuts for other highly anticipated position prospects like Kyle Isbel and Adalberto Mondesi.

Of course, Royals fans could point out that the free-swinging approach though didn’t bother him too much last season, as Witt absolutely mashed Double-A and Triple-A pitching. That being said, the number of strikeouts and corresponding lack of walks could be something to pay attention to from Witt in 2022, especially if he begins the year in Kansas City.

Last season, Witt posted K rates of 24 percent and 22.5 percent in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, respectively, and his BB/K ratios were 0.37 and 0.41 at those same respective levels as well.

Are those rates and ratios poor? No, but typically, one wants to see those rates under 20 percent and ratios 0.50 or over. Of course, his plate discipline and batting eye could develop over time, and he did seem tremendous gains in 2021 after a mediocre 2019. But, it’s unlikely that those gains will happen immediately in the big leagues, especially in 2022.

Now, just being a “free-swinger” isn’t necessarily a bad thing at the surface level. Salvador Perez put together one of the best seasons by a Royals hitter in club history, even though he struck out 25.6 percent of the time last season, a career-high. Javy Baez, the Tigers’ premiere free agent signing this Winter, is known for posting high strikeout rates and low walk rates over the course of his career with the Cubs and Mets. However, he has been able to experience success at the plate, even though he is prone to “downs” season every now and then.

So will Witt be able to overcome his “free-swinging” ways against Major League pitching in 2022? Time will tell. However, if Witt does struggle out of the gate in his MLB debut, I’m guessing his “aggressive” approach at the plate will be a primary reason why.

How will Matheny Handle Witt’s Playing Time?

The jury is still out on manager Mike Matheny and the job he has done in his first two seasons in Kansas City as manager.

On one end, he has helped the Royals improve every year in win percentage, and he seems to have a good rapport with both players and management, something not every Royals manager has been able to do (I mean, look at what happened to Trey Hillman and Tony Muser, for example). Granted, the Royals haven’t really been all that competitive in 2020 and 2021, but they weren’t in the first few years under Ned Yost either, and we all know how that regime ended up (two AL Pennants and a World Series title). Thus, I do not think Matheny is going anywhere soon.

However, how Matheny handles Witt in terms of playing time this season could be a huge “make or break” factor in regard to Matheny’s future in Kansas City as skipper.

As David Lesky wrote recently on Inside the Crown, it will be a complicated infield situation this upcoming season, not just with Witt, but with Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, and Adalberto Mondesi also vying for playing time at the shortstop, second, and third base positions.

Now, Matheny has tended to value a player’s “talent” over their production when it comes to constructing lineups. He continued to play Mondesi when healthy in 2020, even though Mondesi had a rough first month of the season and Royals fans were clamoring for the first-year Royals manager to bench him.

On the other hand, he has strangely preferred veterans or “odd fits” at certain positions over younger players with more upside, which was especially true in 2021.

Last season, he seemed to go with Hanser Alberto for their utility infielder role, even though Emmanuel Rivera was a much younger option who could fill in at the third base position (where Alberto primarily played). Additionally, instead of going with Isbel or Edward Olivares in the right field position, Matheny opted to go with more defensively-challenged options like Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier for a period of time, or Ryan O’Hearn (which happened more after Soler was traded to Atlanta).

Granted, that might not have all fallen on Matheny. Isbel was in Omaha for most of the year, and I’m not sure how much more playing time Matheny could have given Olivares, especially considering how much he was optioned between Kansas City and Omaha a season ago.

That being said, if Matheny had played Olivares in the outfield more, and O’Hearn less, would Olivares have been optioned so much in 2021? Would Isbel have stayed in Omaha for so long if perhaps Matheny would have advocated for the young outfielder’s return after a mediocre first month in Kansas City?

I think Matheny has changed his reputation somewhat as a manager since his St. Louis days, where he was known for preferring veterans nearly at all times over more budding young players who could have more long-term upside. However, I will be interested to see if Matheny will handle Witt’s situation more like Mondesi (where he gets playing time despite struggles) or like Isbel or Olivares (where they get benched for the slightest bit of struggle).

Witt’s talent suggests that Matheny will (or should) handle Witt’s playing time like Mondesi’s two seasons ago. However, there is a logjam in the infield in 2022, which wasn’t necessarily the case in 2020. And that could prompt Matheny to be less patient with Witt, especially if he has to bench Mondesi or Lopez to play Witt in the infield (let’s face it, Whit is not getting benched).

Matheny will be put in an interesting spot as Royals manager next season. If he is successful with his strategy with Witt, it could guarantee Matheny a long-term extension with the Royals after next season.

However, if his strategy backfires, and Witt struggles or even regresses, then it may be hard for Matheny to make it to a fourth season in Kansas City.

The club and front office have too much invested in Witt as of this moment.

Will Witt Stay Healthy in 2022?

Player health is always a touchy subject among baseball fans. Yes, we know that player health is a skill, and there are players who are adept at staying healthy long-term, and those who are always injury-riddled.

Royals fans know this spectrum quite well.

For example, Whit Merrifield has one of the longest continuous games-played streak in baseball, while Mondesi has struggled to put together a full healthy season at the Major League levels. While Whit has been lucky to not experience serious injury, his ability to play through minor pain and take care of his body is an ability that is valued from a front office and management end (and the inverse could be said of Mondesi, whom even Moore said couldn’t be depended on long-term in Kansas City last season):

Now, all reports indicate that Witt is closer to the “Whit model” than the Mondesi one. However, shortstop, outside of catcher, is one of the most demanding positions defensively, especially at the Major League level. Witt has proven time and time again that he is willing to put his body on the line to make a play, as evidenced in this clip below from a game against St. Paul last season:

Of course, those plays are exciting to watch, and as a Royals fan, his effort on defense only endears himself to Royals nation even more. That being said, there is a considerable health risk when he puts his body on the line like that, and baseball fans have seen young, superstar players like Eloy Jimenez and Fernando Tatis, Jr. miss time due to making that extra effort on defensive plays.

Freak things happen, and while no Royals fan wants it, this is the Royals after all…

The baseball Gods can just be cruel, even without reason.

As stated before, Witt has done a good job over the course of his early professional of staying healthy and on the field, which is a credit to his preparation both on and off the field. However, could Witt experience a freak injury due to his “all out style” of play? And if so, what kind of effect could that have on him long-term?

Because after all…once one injury happens to a player, it tends to follow them throughout their professional career.

As much as I like Mondesi, and still have irrational hope in him as a Royals fan, I can’t help but think that he will always be a player affected by nagging injuries throughout his Major League career.

And it would be a shame to see a franchise-altering talent like Witt similarly affected by injury not just in 2022, but throughout his time in professional baseball.

Photo Credit: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

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