The Royals face a brutal West Coast road trip in the coming days as they face the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, and Los Angeles Angels before they return to Kauffman Stadium for a weekend series against the Athletics. While the A’s should be a winnable series, the Giants and Angels are formidable foes, even if both clubs have had their share of inconsistencies this season.
For a Royals team that is 20-39, and is firmly entrenched in the bottom of the AL Central, this road trip could make a tough season even worse.
While there haven’t been a ton of bright spots for this Royals team, one encouraging player who is bringing hope for the Royals’ long-term future is Bobby Witt, Jr.
Witt is not the lone rookie shining in his big league debut. MJ Melendez is also mashing to the tune of a .258/.336/.475 slash with six home runs in 134 plate appearances. That being said, Witt came into the season as not just the most anticipated Royals rookie, but in baseball in general, as he was the leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year, based on most sportsbooks’ odds.
Unfortunately, Witt’s rookie campaign didn’t get off to the greatest start, even after being named the Royals’ starting third baseman on Opening Day. During the month of April, the former No. 2 overall pick hit .216 with a .558 OPS in 77 plate appearances. This also included 19 strikeouts to only two walks. As exciting as Witt’s play was on the field defensively, there were major question marks about how he would adjust to MLB pitching, especially as opposing pitchers looked to take advantage of his over-aggressive approach.
Nearly two months later though, it’s a different story, as Witt is now hitting .244 with a .747 OPS as of June 13th. Witt has also stolen 10 bases on 12 attempts and mashed eight home runs, including this solo shot below in the final game of the Royals homestand on Sunday.
Witt is not only surging back into the Rookie of the Year discussion, but he’s also making this Royals club more interesting than their 20-39 record suggests.
And Witt’s development at the plate over the past couple of months could be a big reason why this Royals team could be one worth watching after the July All-Star break (even though that is roughly a month away).
What’s Been Different for Witt in May and June?
Looking at Witt’s splits data this season is an interesting endeavor, as there is a lot of data that suggests that Witt is adjusting quite well to MLB pitchers as he gets more plate appearances with the Royals. While Royals fans can see on a daily basis that Witt is a much different hitter in June than in April, there is some concrete data that backs up his development with the Royals at the Major League level the past couple of months.
Now, let’s take a look at his standard stat (i.e. counting stat) data, organized by month via Fangraphs:
The batting average increase each month sticks out the most, as he improved 37 points from April to May and 57 points from May to June so far. Granted, Witt has only played in 11 games this month, but barring a major slump over the next couple of weeks, it is likely that his average will surpass his May mark.
His extra-base hit data over the past couple of months is also a development that Royals fans should pay attention to.
Of the 16 hits Witt had during the month of April, 10 of them were singles. That is roughly a 63 percent mark. In May, however, that “singles as base hits” percentage went down to 36 percent. He not only hit six home runs during the month of May, but he also had eight doubles and two triples as well. Granted, the “singles as base hits” percentage has gone back up to around 66 percent, but he already has more home runs (two) and just as many triples (one) in 45 plate appearances in June than he did in 77 plate appearances in April.
Additionally, the batted ball data suggest that Witt is due to get more extra-base hits in June, as long as he maintains his batted ball quality at the plate.
Here’s a look at his batted ball splits over the past three months, and even though he doesn’t have quite the number of extra-base hits in June as he did in May, the quality of the balls he has hit in June mirrors closer to May than April.
Witt has improved his line drive rate by five points this June, and he also has seen a sharp decline in groundball rate as well. The HR/FB rate isn’t as high in June as it was in May, but the sub-one GB/FB ratio is a promising sign that Witt is making more quality contact this month.
Witt is also showing a more balanced batted ball approach as well. He is still pulling the ball a decent amount (40.6) percent, but still going up the middle and to the opposite field more this month (25 percent) than last month (15.6 percent). With his speed, Witt will benefit if he can continue to hit balls into different outfield gaps (especially if they are line drives).
Here’s an example of Witt swinging and missing on a changeup on the outside edge against Rangers pitcher Martin Perez in early May.
Back in May in Texas, Witt tries to pull a pitch that he should just go the other way with. As a result, Perez makes Witt look silly on a 3-2 count.
Flashed forward now nearly a month later, as Witt gets a four-seamer fastball from Blue Jays reliever Trevor Richards. Thankfully for Witt and the Royals, the result is much different.
Against Richards, Witt goes with the pitch and lines a groundball single to right field. He hits it well enough that Raimel Tapia misplays the ball, and it ends up getting Andrew Benintendi to third base (he later would score).
Lastly, the third development in Witt’s game over the past couple of months has been an improvement in his plate discipline. Inside the Royals mentioned on Twitter Witt’s better eye at the plate lately, which is demonstrated in his overall K rate for the year.
A deeper dive into his plate discipline splits does show not only a decrease in K rate month by month this season but also a gradual rise in walk rate, which is something that Inside the Royals advocates for from the budding Royals superstar.
Witt saw his BB/K ratio increase by 11 points from April to May and 22 points so far from May to June. Thus, It’s not a surprise that Witt as a result posted a 130 wRC+ in May and is currently posting a 146 wRC+.
His better plate discipline is getting him on base more, as his walk rate in June is 4.5 points higher than in May and 6.3 points higher than in April. In addition, it’s also helping him get more pitches he can hit with power, which is reflected in his .291 ISO in May and .225 ISO in June, which overshadows the paltry .095 ISO mark back in April.
While Royals fans have seen plenty of growth offensively from Witt over the past couple of months, his defense has also been stellar, especially at shortstop. Though he started initially at third base, an injury to Adalberto Mondesi moved Witt to shortstop, and as a result, Witt’s been even better defensively at his natural position.
So far this year, Witt is two outs above average at shortstop, according to Statcast metrics, which is better than the zero OAA mark he has at third base.
Witt’s OAA box plot data further confirms that Witt excels when he plays the shortstop position rather than the hot corner.
As a result of his improving offense and stellar defense, Witt is already producing an fWAR of 1.6, which puts him not just in good company in comparison to his peers (on an fWAR basis, he’s been better than Toronto’s Bo Bichette and Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco), but also on track to put up a pretty historic season for a Royals rookie, as Alec Lewis of the Athletic pointed out.
Even though his rookie year started slowly, Witt is living up to the massive hype that was placed upon him in Spring Training of LAST year.
And if he continues to develop toward that possible 25 HR-25 SB scenario, not only will he be a serious contender for AL Rookie of the Year, but he could also be a key cog to the Royals being a much more competitive club after the All-Star break.
What Witt’s Presence Could Mean for Other Royals Prospects
The success of Witt is something that Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo should be credited for, as tough as that is to stomach for Royals fans who are fed up with this Royals front office.
It would have been easy for the Royals to play either service manipulation games with him or perhaps send him down at the end of April when he got off to a rough start (like the Angels did with Jo Adell or the Mariners did with Jarred Kelenic). Instead, they let Witt weather the ups and downs of being a rookie at the MLB level, and right now, it seems like Witt is only getting better and better with each and every game played.
In addition, the Royals have also taken the plunge on another Royals top prospect, Melendez, who also has been a jolt of energy to a last-place club.
Though Melendez still has room to grow defensively (his framing rate ranks in the 11th percentile), he’s been one of the Royals’ most productive bats over the past month. Melendez’s Statcast percentiles also confirm that his breakout is every bit legitimate (i.e. a lot of red), which is a good sign for this club going forward this season and beyond.
It’s easy to think that the success of Witt and Melendez should prompt Moore and Picollo to take more immediate action. If those two can be successful at the MLB level, then why can’t the same thing happen for Nick Pratto or Vinnie Pasquantino?
However, baseball is a game that moves slowly, and not just on the field, but in the front office as well.
It’s a side effect of a long 162-game season.
Yes, it would be nice to see Pratto and Pasquantino up now and trade spots with Carlos Santana and Ryan O’Hearn. It would also be nice to see Kyle Isbel get more plate appearances, though I do think he’s been benefiting a little too much from fan hype (he’s only producing a 68 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR in 29 games and 81 plate appearances).
Unfortunately, veterans tend to rule the day at the MLB level at this time in the season, even on a losing and rebuilding team.
Case in point: the A’s, who are also rebuilding, actually have a higher average batter age than the Royals, according to Baseball-Reference.
On the other hand, it won’t always be that way.
Come July, moves will happen for Kansas City, like it most likely will for other clubs like Oakland, Cincinnati, and probably Pittsburgh, just to name a few.
As a result, this Royals roster, especially the lineup, will likely be a lot younger by August 1st.
Isbel and Edward Olivares, who’s due back from a rehab stint in Omaha any day now, will be more regulars in the Royals outfield and lineup (especially if Michael A. Taylor is traded, which is looking highly likely now). Pratto will eventually cut down the K’s and be more prepared to succeed in his rookie call-up.
And Pasquantino will be starting at first base at some point, with the possibility being as soon as sometime this month, as some have hinted on Twitter:
After the All-Star break, this Royals team could be really good offensively, and who knows what could happen if the Royals get the right voice on the pitching staff (I already have hinted that Cal Eldred’s not that guy). If the chips fall right for the starters in the second half, and things begin to click (Zack Greinke’s return off the IL will help), it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Royals make that patented late-season run, even if it only results in 70 or so wins overall.
It’s tough to be patient with this Royals squad, especially after seven years of uncompetitive baseball.
But Witt is showing the payoff of being patient, as Royals management and fans did after his rough first month.
And when Pratto and Pasquantino eventually join Witt and Melendez at the Major League level, even if takes until after the All-Star break?
Well, let’s just say the patience will pay off in more ways than frustrated Royals fans may think.
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