Bobby Witt, Jr. has been the story of the Royals’ offseason, especially coming off a season in which he hit 20 home runs and stole 30 bases in 150 games and 632 plate appearances. While the triple slash (.254/.294/.428) and wRC+ (99), left a little to be desired, it was still an impressive rookie campaign for the 22-year-old who was drafted No. 2 overall back in 2019.
There’s no question that the Royals have somewhat become Witt’s team, even with All-Star veterans such as Zack Greinke and Salvador Perez in the clubhouse. If the Royals want to improve upon their 65-97 record and outperform their lackluster projections for the upcoming 2023 season, Witt will need to carry the club at the plate and on the basepaths.
So far this Spring, Witt has certainly done his part at the plate, especially in Cactus League play. In seven games and 18 plate appearances, Witt is slashing .389/.400/.556 with four RBI. While he continues to demonstrate an overeager approach at the plate (only one walk), he also has shown a solid ability to make contact at the plate this Spring, as he has only struck out two times.
In addition to his performance in the Cactus League, the Royals franchise player has also been able to play with the Team USA WBC squad this Spring, though he has not been able to get much playing time, mostly thanks to All-Stars such as Nolan Arenado, Tim Anderson, and Trea Turner manning the third base and shortstop positions primarily.
However, when he has gotten at-bats, Witt has made the most of his opportunities, as evidenced by this RBI single against Mexico.
In addition to his strong Spring at the plate, Witt has also been dedicated to improving himself both on the offensive and defensive end in Surprise, even on his days off. During a Team USA off day, Witt was working with Royals coaches to not only get at-bats in but also work on his fielding at shortstop, an area of his game that he got a lot of flack for in his rookie campaign.
Witt is embracing being the center of Royals fans’ attention (which I talked about in my Royals Rally recap) but is still humble enough to put in the work to better himself this offseason and Spring. And thus, it is easy for this Royals fanbase to think about his potential for his sophomore season, and imagine what he can do, especially on the hitting end of things, after a full year under his belt.
That said, when it comes to his hitting, what should Royals fans be paying attention to, based on the data from his 2022 season?
Using PLV’s hitter ability metrics (available via a PL Pro membership) and the rolling charts based on those metrics from last year, I pinpointed one area of concern, one area of promise, and one “question mark” for Witt and his outlook for the 2023 season.
The Concern: Decision Value
According to PLV’s hitter metrics, “decision value” can be defined as follows:
- Modeled value (runs per 100 pitches) of a hitter’s decision to swing or take, minus the modeled value of the alternative.
Decision value mirrors Baseball Savant’s “swing-take” data in the sense that it measures a hitter’s swing decisions and their impact on producing runs. Swinging too much, especially on pitches outside of the strike zone, obviously is not a good thing. But then again, taking too much can also be detrimental.
Here’s a look at Witt’s decision value rolling chart from a season ago, via PLV data:
It’s interesting to see Witt, whose plate discipline has been criticized by some Royals fans and analysts, actually was starting to show solid decision-making after a slow start to the year. Around the 800-900 pitch mark, his runs-added trend actually touched the 75th percentile.
Unfortunately, around that 1250-pitch mark, that runs-added number plummeted and didn’t really spike up again until the 2000-pitch mark. And even after getting to what would be his season-average number (which was 0.6 runs added per 100 pitches), he ended up regressing again to around the 0.2 to 0.4 runs added per 100 pitches area.
There are a couple of factors that could explain his sharp dip in decision-making around that midway mark of the season.
The first reason is more universal: pitchers adjusted to Witt, and Witt took some time to make his own adjustment. By the time he did, it wasn’t enough to really push him back to those early-season runs-added marks.
The second reason could be contributed to an injury he suffered against the Rays on July 24th, and how Mike Matheny handled him during that timespan.
Instead of putting him on the IL, Matheny and the Royals instead gave a not fully-healthy Witt inconsistent playing time and at-bats. As a result, his performance suffered for the remainder of the season.
In the months of August and September/October, Witt posted wRC+ marks of 90 and 84, according to Fangraphs splits. Those months were his worst months on a wRC+ end with the exception of April when he posted a lousy 52 wRC+. David Lesky of Inside the Crown also mentioned this regression in a tweet in August that highlighted a regression in some key categories in the wake of his injury.
In addition, his pitch hex bin chart comparisons via Savant pre-injury and post-injury demonstrate that he was not making efficient swings and contact in the same areas after July 26th as he was prior to the date.
Pre-injury, he was much more adept at producing in the lower inside part of the zone. On the flip side, wasn’t excelling on those pitches after his injury.
The nature of his injury (hamstring) could have contributed to that regression since his injury would have made it less natural (or comfortable) to swing or produce the same kind of contact quality on those pitches.
Thus, Witt’s decision-making will be interesting to follow in 2023, as long as he’s fully healthy. It is possible that we could see him get more to that 75th percentile mark again now that the hamstring injury is behind him, as
The Promise: Contact Ability
If there’s a sign of encouragement from Witt’s PLV metrics from a year ago, it could be found in his contact ability rolling chart from last season. Contact ability, according to PLV, can be defined as such:
- A hitter’s ability to make contact (foul strike or BIP); above the contact expectation of each pitch.
Here’s what his chart looked like in 2022, via PLV:
Even though Witt’s decision value regressed over the course of the season (perhaps affected by that hamstring injury at Kauffman on July 26th), his contact ability trended in the opposite direction. After being two percent below average in terms of making contact around the 400-swing mark, his trend moved upward around the 600-swing point, where it consistently stayed above league average for the remainder of the year.
Also, by the 1000-swing mark, he was in the 90th percentile in terms of contact ability, and his average in contact ability put him in the 3-4 percent mark, which was well above the league average, as evidenced by the PLV graph. The fact that Witt trended in a positive direction, despite his injury issue, is an encouraging sign of his ability to adjust to MLB hitters over the course of a season.
Witt’s expected batting average rolling chart, via Savant, also demonstrates that Witt can be an above-league-average hitter on a contact end, especially if he’s able to improve his hard-hit rate and see some better batted-ball luck in 2023 (.295 BABIP in 2022). Notice how he consistently is around or above league-average in terms of xBA after a slow start in April.
The power and speed will always be there due to Witt’s impressive tools in that area (after all, he did hit 20 home runs and steal 30 bases).
That being said, Witt has a strong chance to outperform his .254 batting average from a year ago due to the gains in contact ability he demonstrated down the stretch last season.
The Question Mark: Hitter Performance
The last chart we are going to look at is hitter performance, which is defined as follows:
- Runs added per 100 pitches seen by the hitter (including swing/take decisions), after accounting for pitch quality.
Hitter performance can be a nice overall report card of how a hitter’s decisions fared over a certain period of time. And here’s a look at what that report card looked like for Witt.
Much like Witt’s decision value, Royals fans will see a huge spike when he gets past the 800-pitch mark and then a regression around that 1400-pitch mark.
But here’s the difference between the two charts: the regression isn’t nearly as bad in his hitter performance chart in comparison to his decision value rolling chart.
Witt’s runs added per 100 pitches on a hitter performance only dips below the 25th percentile briefly, which was around the 1700-pitch mark. Also, his season average in this category is just slightly below the MLB league average, unlike his season average in decision value. He also inched closer to the 75th percentile at times post-injury, which wasn’t exactly the case in his decision value rolling chart either.
Thus, there are some positives to glean from this hitter performance chart when it comes to projecting Witt’s potential at the plate in 2023. His hitter performance chart is in between those two previous charts and that should give Royals fans hope that a fully healthy Witt could be a 75th percentile and up hitter, at least according to PLV’s hitter performance.
It becomes even more fascinating when compared to fellow young Royals stars like Vinnie Pasquantino and MJ Melendez, whose hitter performance charts can be seen below:
Pasquantino’s is by far the best of the bunch, as his runs added per 100 pitches season average was considerably above the league average. However, he did not see as many pitches as Witt or Melendez, so it will be interesting to see how Vinnie’s rolling chart fares over a full season in 2023.
As for Melendez, he seemed to be more consistent in terms of the trend in comparison to Witt. On the other hand, he hit that 25th percentile mark twice (one more than Witt), and he saw a considerable dropoff after 2000 pitches. Unlike Witt, there was no injury that Melendez could credit for the regression, though he probably was a bigger victim of fatigue, due to time behind the plate as the Royals’ backup catcher.
There’s a lot to be hopeful and skeptical of in regard to Witt and his outlook for the upcoming season. There is true superstar potential there, even if it may not be at the shortstop position long-term (hopefully Alguacil can help him be at least league-average defensively at shortstop or third, wherever he should settle).
While Witt did not finish in the Top-3 in Rookie of the Year voting last year (which cost the Royals a year of team control), I could see a much bigger improvement from Witt in comparison to perhaps Julio Rodriguez, Steven Kwan, or even Jeremy Pena. Witt’s gains in contact ability and better-than-expected hitter performance rolling chart show that Witt made a lot of adjustments at the plate, even if it didn’t necessarily show in his overall metrics after the All-Star Break.
It isn’t out of the realm of possibility to think that Witt has a .285-.300 batting average potential and could see his K rate dip under 20 percent both in 2023 and the long term. The PLV charts hint at such an improvement coming, as long as he can stay healthy.
Witt’s already accomplished a lot as a player in the Royals system since being drafted in 2019…
Expect him to continue to outperform expectations in 2023, even if the experts may be more conservative in their projections.
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
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[…] gotten much playing time with Team USA in the WBC. While his defense is a concern, Witt has the upside to really take a major step forward on the hitting end, and perhaps be one of the best offensive shortstops in the American League in […]