The White Sox’s Tim Anderson Could Give Royals Fans Insight On Bobby Witt Jr’s Defensive Outlook

It’s likely that the AL Rookie of the Year award will go to Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez, especially considering the young Mariners’ production and the fact that he is on a team in playoff contention. Nonetheless, the fact that Bobby Witt, Jr. will miss out on the award shouldn’t damper his impressive rookie season in Kansas City.

Witt made the Royals’ Opening Day roster after a solid Spring Training campaign, and safe to say, the expectations for him were sky high from the Royals fanbase for the 2022 season. And despite that tremendous pressure from the Royals fanbase and media, Witt has pretty much carried a Royals team that has gradually become much younger than the roster on Opening Day, due to a plethora of in-season trades (i.e. Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, and Whit Merrifield).

On an offensive end, Witt is slashing .250/.291/.446 which includes a wRC+ of 102. While at the surface level that may not stand out, Witt has collected 20 home runs and 26 stolen bases this year, which puts him in pretty select territory for first-year players in MLB history (as the Royals’ Twitter account pointed out).

Of course, Witt’s plate discipline could use some work, as he ranks in the 8th percentile in walk rate and 15th percentile in chase rate, according to Baseball Savant. On the other hand, his batted ball profile has been as good as advertised, as he not only ranks in the 92nd percentile in max exit velocity, but he also ranks in the 76th percentile in both average exit velocity and expected slugging percentage (xSLG) as well.

When it comes to offense and ability on the basepaths, there isn’t much for Royals fans to complain about. Unfortunately, his defense this year has been a different story.

As of Monday, Witt has committed 17 errors in 126 games between third base and shortstop (3 at third base; 14 at shortstop). In fact, even though Witt has only played 635 innings at shortstop this year, he still has committed the 7th most errors at the position of MLB shortstops with 500 or more innings this season, according to Fangraphs.

In addition, a deep dive into his advanced defensive metrics didn’t provide much optimism either.

As Royals fans can see in the table below, Witt is tremendously below average in nearly every major advanced defensive metric, including DRS (defensive runs saved), UZR (ultimate zone rating), and OAA (outs above average).

That is not a good sign going forward for a player who was expected to be the future of the Royals at the shortstop position when he was drafted second overall back in 2019.

Despite the rough metrics though, Witt can be a polarizing case among Royals fans. While the numbers suggest that Witt may need to move off the position to have overall value as a player, he still is capable of making sensational plays, such as the one he made below against the Tigers on Sunday.

Witt has the athletic ability to make dynamic plays that can change the course of a game. That being said, his struggles with errors and consistency is a big reason why he ranks as one of the worst defensive shortstops in the game currently.

Can Witt make an adjustment this offseason so he can utilize his athleticism best at the shortstop position in 2023 and beyond? Or is Witt too flawed defensively that a move away from the middle infield should be encouraged next Spring?

Surprisingly, the case of Tim Anderson and his early years at shortstop with the White Sox from 2017 to 2019 could give a glimpse of why patience may be necessary for Witt at the shortstop position next season.


Looking at Anderson’s Performance at Shortstop from 2017-2019

To be honest, the idea of looking at Tim Anderson’s defensive metrics came after seeing a tweet from Patrick Brennan, who used to contribute to Royals Farm Report back in the early days of the site.

I figured Anderson was a better comparison than Fernando Tatis, Jr., mostly because Anderson has seven MLB seasons under his belt, and is a two-time All-Star as well. While Royals fans would like Witt to have more long-term value than Anderson, it wouldn’t be the worst thing either if Anderson’s was Witt’s floor as a player either.

Much like Witt, Anderson as a prospect possessed five-tool potential at the shortstop position but was dogged by an over-eager plate approach and a tendency to “boot” routine plays on the defensive end. Baseball America ranked Anderson as the White Sox’s No. 1 overall prospect going into the 2016 season, and here’s a snippet of what they said about him in their scouting report:

He likes to attack the first fastball he can handle, and few SL batters walked less frequently. Evaluators are warming to the idea that Anderson can play shortstop at the major league level. He improved his fielding percentage from .897 at Winston- Salem in 2014 to .952 at Birmingham in 2015 because he made fewer careless mistakes (though he led both leagues in errors by a shortstop). He makes his share of highlight-reel plays with above-average range and arm strength, but some evaluators ding him for not always playing the right hop and for not consistently converting throws from deep in the hole. The White Sox believe that Anderson can play at least an average major league shortstop with continued repetitions and with better positioning. He may not profile as a table-setter in the lineup unless he improves his on-base ability, but he will factor offensively with his speed and ability to impact the ball. 

“2016 Tim Anderson Scouting Report”; Baseball America

It may not be an “exact” comp to Witt’s own scouting report. But boy, does Anderson’s Baseball America scouting report mirror closely what Royals fans have seen from Witt both at the Major and Minor League level over the past two years.

Anderson made his debut for the White Sox in 2016, playing in 98 games. However, 2017 was his first full season in the Majors for a “rebuilding” White Sox team, and as I noted on Twitter yesterday, the defensive numbers, especially advanced metrics, weren’t pretty.

Anderson’s numbers are similar to what Witt has done this year. If anything, Witt’s numbers have been slightly better, and for context, Anderson had a full season to play shortstop for the White Sox that season (i.e. he wasn’t flip-flopping between positions like Witt).

Obviously, the numbers for Anderson don’t look good. But visually, what did his struggles look like that year? Well, let’s take a look at his OAA box plot via Savant, and also compare that chart to Witt’s own Savant plot this season.

(Scroll to the right to see Anderson; Left to see Witt).

It’s interesting to note that most of Anderson’s blue boxes (which are bad) are around the normal shortstop position or going toward first base. Anderson does have a red box (which is good) going toward third base, which shows his range and arm strength.

Witt’s chart is a bit different, though his considerable time at third base this year (400 innings) contributes to him having way more boxes over the infield compared to Anderson. Witt’s blue boxes are on plays toward the third-base side or plays when he’s playing pretty much at second base (due to shifting). But on those plays at or around the regular shortstop position? He’s producing red and white boxes, which is a good sign.

Witt, this year, has been at least better than Anderson in 2017 at making those plays around the shortstop area, based on this chart data.

Now, let’s take a look at what that box plot data looks for Anderson from his 2018 and 2019 seasons, combined.

Anderson still struggles in that same area that he had issues with in 2017, but it’s a much lighter blue, which is a positive sign. Furthermore, he has a lot more red, and not just on those backhand plays (which is dark red), but also more up the middle, which we didn’t really see in 2017.

And here’s how his advanced fielding numbers, including not just OAA, but DRS and UZR as well, fare from his rookie season in 2016 to 2019, according to Fangraphs. Notice the difference and improvement in most categories in 2018.

Anderson improves his DRS by 35 points, his UZR by 14 points, and OAA by 18 points from 2017 to 2018. While there was some regression in 2019, his numbers weren’t nearly as bad overall as in 2017, which shows that 2017 was more of an “abnormality” than a sign of what Anderson’s outlook would be as a defensive player.

And seeing this data from Anderson should give hope to Royals fans who believe that Witt can still stick at the shortstop position long-term.


How Patient Should the Royals Be With Witt at Shortstop?

Now, I know some Royals fans may be asking this after seeing all this data on Anderson: what did Anderson and the White Sox do to help him improve at the shortstop position in 2018?

I found two articles that gave some context about his defensive adjustments, which can be found in my Tweet below:

The SouthSide Sox piece does a good job breaking down the numbers and differences from 2018 (amazingly, they were saying a lot of the same things about Anderson that Royals fans are saying about Witt, with “moving to CF” being a primary example). However, the Athletic piece by White Sox beat writer, James Fegan, gives valuable perspective about Anderson’s defensive improvement from not just Anderson but teammates and coaches.

Here are some key snippets from the piece that highlights what changed for Anderson.

From White Sox pitcher (and former Royals ace) James Shields:

Over the last few months he’s drastically changed, I know that,” James Shields said. “He’s been working so hard, all year long. In between games, and before games and during BP, I don’t think he’s taken a day off working on his defense. We as pitchers, especially starting pitchers, when we’re not pitching we’re constantly praising him on how well his defense is and how much it’s improved. He’s done a tremendous job this year of really stepping his game up.”

“Tim Anderson enjoying his midseason defensive breakout: ‘Confidence level is way up'” by James Fegan; The Athletic

From then White Sox manager Rick Renteria:

“It’s his work,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s really starting to get around the baseball really well, backhanded side he’s been doing very nicely. Obviously glove side has been very good coming in. His idea and his ability now to slow the game down a little bit more, keep everything in front of him, understanding what he’s got to do, trusting his skill set. He’s a very explosive player.”

“Tim Anderson enjoying his midseason defensive breakout: ‘Confidence level is way up'” by James Fegan; The Athletic

And from Anderson himself:

“I’m in a different spot as far as who I was then,” Anderson said of his progress since Opening Day. “Confidence level is way up, the hands are working, everything’s clicking. I’ve figured it out and I’m learning that position every day. Just got to continue to get better, keep focusing and just keep having fun.”

“Tim Anderson enjoying his midseason defensive breakout: ‘Confidence level is way up'” by James Fegan; The Athletic

Two things particularly stand out from the article and those series of quotes:

  1. He put in a lot of work at the position, especially during the season.
  2. He built his confidence on the defensive end.

Those aren’t earth-shattering adjustments that Witt couldn’t employ himself, though the second point may be easier said than done.

One thing that is noted in the SouthSide Sox article is that the White Sox at the time didn’t have anyone in the Majors or Minors who could compete with Anderson for the shortstop position back in 2018. Thus, the White Sox pretty much could allow Anderson to work through his struggles as they didn’t have any better options on the horizon.

The same can’t be said for Witt.

Not only does Witt have to compete with Nicky Lopez, who should’ve been a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop last year, but he will likely battle with Maikel Garcia and maybe Adalberto Mondesi again this coming Spring (if Mondesi is healthy of course). That not only puts pressure on Witt but also gives manager Mike Matheny a reason to move him off the position, especially since there aren’t a lot of great options at third base for the Royals both at the Major and Minor League level after the Emmanuel Rivera trade.

And hence, it may be difficult for Witt to recapture that confidence at the position like Anderson did in 2018, simply because the leash is a lot shorter for Witt due to the other internal options available in Kansas City.

The fact of the matter is that Witt may never be an “elite” or Gold Glove shortstop at the MLB level. However, he can be an “Anderson-type” and have the right amount of overall value, where the speed and bat will make up for average defense at the shortstop position. The Royals can plug Massey and Garcia at second base and Lopez and Mondesi at third to make up for any defensive issues that Witt may have at shortstop in 2023. While Lopez and Mondesi may be better with the glove than Witt, they lack offensive upside in comparison to Witt, both in the short and long term.

The bottom line is this: Witt has more value as the Royals’ shortstop of the future rather than the “third baseman” or “centerfielder” of the future.

And that deserves Witt to get at least another “full year” at the shortstop position to prove if he can experience that “rebound” defensively like Anderson saw in 2018.

The Royals aren’t making the postseason anyways in 2023…

They might as well approach this offseason and next season as an opportunity to determine if Witt can put in the work and develop the needed confidence to be the Royals’ shortstop for the foreseeable future.

Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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