Bobby Witt, Jr. and His Batting Order Conundrum With the Royals

To be honest, this isn’t an easy post to write, especially since so much has been written and shared about the Royals’ leadoff spot in the batting order.

Today, Matthew Lamar wrote a piece on why Witt needs to come off the leadoff spot, and why Edward Olivares should be a candidate to replace him in that position in the batting order.

Lamar’s piece wasn’t the only analysis shared on Twitter regarding who should be hitting first in the Royals’ batting order.

Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report suggested that Maikel Garcia, who’s cooled off after a strong start at the plate with the Royals (which happened in Omaha by the way too), would be a good fit for the spot, and would fit in much better at the top of the batting order rather than in the middle or bottom.

Lastly, Pretson Farr of Royals Review, was able to do some calculations on Baseball Musings to see what would be the most ideal lineups when it came to maximizing run potential.

Surprisingly, it was Nick Pratto, not Olivares, Garcia, or Witt, who would be at the top of the most productive Royals’ lineups going forward, based on Baseball Musings’ projection model.

I even suggested Vinnie Pasquantino as an option, especially since he leads all Royals with 10 or more plate appearances in BB/K ratio with a 1.17 mark, according to Fangraphs. In fact, his ratio is 0.50 points higher than Nicky Lopez, who has the second-highest mark on the team, as of Monday.

That said, this post isn’t necessarily about the Royals’ leadoff situation, which doesn’t seem primed to change anytime soon, as evidenced by tonight’s lineup against the San Diego Padres.

Rather, this post is to look at what Witt has done in the leadoff spot in the batting order over his career, why change must be necessary, and the difficult dilemma the Royals are in when it comes to placating thier talented star in order to ensure that they don’t burn any bridges with a possible long-term extension in the near future.

Witt’s Inconsistent Production at the Leadoff Spot

This season, Matt Quatraro has opted to utilize Witt primarily as the Royals’ leadoff hitter, which is a contrast to a season ago, where Melendez got a lot of time in that spot in the batting order.

In the 41 games that Witt has appeared in this season, he’s only had six games and 21 plate appearances at spots “other” than leadoff, which can be seen in his Fangraphs splits.

As Royals fans can see, the production hasn’t been all that great at the leadoff spot.

Yes, all seven of his home runs this season have come at leadoff, and he also has collected three triple, eight stolen bases, and 24 runs scored in 159 plate appearances in the spot. On the other hand, he has only walked eight times and struck out 36 times, which is good for a BB/K ratio of 0.22.

That’s not ideal for any leadoff hitter, let alone for a Royals franchise that is rebuilding and looking for one in the long term.

Unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot of data this season to refute that he belongs anywhere else. Therefore, let’s take a look at his 2022 numbers and see how his leadoff metrics compare to his production in other spots in the batting order.

Under manager Mike Matheny, Witt only had 18 plate appearances at the leadoff spot, so that’s not a really indicative sample by anty means.

That said, the lower in the batting order Witt hit, the better he performed. He hit .260, had nine home runs, and a BB/K ratio of 0.27 in the three hole compared to a .247 average, eight home runs, and a 0.18 BB/K ratio in the number two spot (and this was despiting having 115 more plate appearances at the number two spot as well).

Lastly, let’s look at his overall career, both the standard and advance metrics via Fangraphs, and how those leadoff numbers over the past two years compare to what he did in the number two and three spot in 2022 and 2023.

On a wRC+ end, Witt has been most productive in the number three spot over his career. He has had success in the fifth and sixth spot in the batting order, as he has posted wRC+ marks of 172 and 126, respectively. However, he only has 72 plate appearances in those two spots, so it may be rash to think that Witt would automatically excel in those spots in the batting order if moved down.

Nonetheless, this much is clear from the splits data: Witt fares much better when placed lower in the order, even if it’s only a couple of spots.

Based on the Fangraphs metrics, Witt is not a table setter for a lineup, as expected traditionally from a leadoff hitter.

Rather, he’s a run producer in multiple forms. He not only fares better on a home run, batting average, and wRC+ end when hitting lower in the order, but he also has stolen MORE bases hitting 2nd (17) or third (12) rather than leadoff (9).

PLV Data Supports Other Options for Royals at Leadoff

Pitcher List’s PLV data also supports those who contend that Witt may be too free-swinging to be a leadoff hitter. One of the metrics that could be easily applied to any leadoff hiter in order to determine their vlaue in the spot is decision value, which can be defined as follows:

Decision Value: Modeled value (runs per 100 pitches) of a hitter’s decision to swing or take, minus the modeled value of the alternative.

“Hitter Ability Metrics”; PLV; Pitcher List

Heres’ a look at Witt’s decision value PLV rolling chart from this season:

On a PLV decision value end, Witt is producing a season average roughly of 0.6 runs added per 100 pitches. That puts him barely above the 10th percentile of the league, which is well below league-average, according to PLB metrics.

Now, let’s look at the decision value rolling chart data for Olivares and Pratto, two other hitters who have been suggested by Royals fans as possible leadoff options.

Olivares started below league average, but has surged up to the 90th percentile in runs added per 100 pitches. As for Pratto, his season average puts him around 1.5 runs added per 100 pitches, which places him near the 90th percentile for the year, currently.

Those are considerably better marks than Witt, and show, on a decision value end, that Olivares and Pratto could possibly provide more value and production at the leadoff spot going forward. They may not have Bobby’s speed, but in terms of their decisions at the plate, the Royals would likely be getting more runs added to the batting order with Olivares or Pratto.

Unfortunately, Garcia doesn’t have enough data to have a PLV chart just yet. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how he fares to not just Witt, but Olivares and Pratto as well.

On the other end of the hitting spectrum, Witt’s power PLV metrics have seen an inverse trend in comparison to his decision value rolling data. PLV “power” can be defined as follows:

Power: Modeled number of extra bases (xISO on contact) above a pitch’s expectation, for each BBE.

“Hitter Ability Metrics”; PLV; Pitcher List

Here’s a look at Witt’s power PLV rolling chart:

Conversely, let’s take a look at Vinnie Pasquantino and MJ Melendez, two hitters who bat in more “run production” spots in the batting order, and have a reputation for more power than Witt.

Melendez’s season average is slightly above Witt’s, but he is trending down in terms of expected bases added production over his most recent batted ball stretch. As for Pasquantino, not only is he lower than Witt, but his season average in power PLV is only “barely” above MLB league average, which is surprising for a hitter like Vinnie with such a sterling “power” reputation.

Therefore, Royals fans, based on the PLV data comparison above, could argue that Witt perhaps belongs lower in the order in “run-producing” spots like three, four, or five, over even Pasquantino, who is seen more as a natural fit in those three spots in the batting order.

If anything, Vinnie may be better higher in the order, due to his solid plate discipline and decision making.

Comparing Witt and Jazz Chisholm, Jr.

I made the comparison of Witt’s slow start to Julio Rodriguez on Twitter, and as expected, it was a bit polarizing.

In all honesty, my intent was not to directly compare Witt and Julio as players, but rather show that even the most hyped players can still succeed with questionable swing metrics. Just because Witt doesn’t walk like Jack Cust doesn’t mean he’s going to be a “bust.”

However, one player I do think compares closely with Witt, in terms of tools and dynamics, is Jazz Chisholm, Jr. of the Marlins, who is widely seen as Miami’s franchise cornerstone (much like Witt with Kansas City).

Here’s a look at how their dashboard metrics compare, via Fangraphs:

Witt is slightly outproducing Chisholm on a fWAR end by 0.2 wins. On the other hand, Chisholm does hold a slight edge in terms of wRC+ (92 to Witt’s 89) and stolen bases (14 to Witt’s 12).

Surprisingly, both hitters are posting BB/K ratios of 0.23, though Witt and Chisholm have taken different paths to getting there. Chisholm walks 2.5 percent more than Witt, but he also is striking out 11.2 percent more as well. As for Witt, he is striking out less than Chisholm, but he is also walking far less, which also contributes to why Witt’s OBP is 20 points lower than Chisholm’s.

On a Stacast metrics end, Chisholm barely edges Witt in average exit velocity on batted balls. However, Witt has a clear advantage in barrel rate and most expected stats, simply because Witt has a much better average launch angle on batted balls, which can be seen in the comparison below:

Lastly, Witt definitely looks better than Chisholm in terms of swing, strike, and contact data, via Fangraphs. While Chisholm does swing at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, Witt has been much better at making contact than Chisholm this year, and by a considerable margin as well.

Much like Witt, Chisholm has spent most of his career hitting leadoff, despite the questionable strikeout and swing metrics, which can be seen in Chisholm’s Fangraphs splits table:

Chisholm has seen more career success at the leadoff spot in comparison to Witt, as his career wRC+ of 106 when hitting in the leadoff spot in the batting order is 37 points higher than Witt’s, as of May 15th. That said, Chisholm has struck out less when placed lower in the batting order (especially 5th and below).

Much like Witt, Chisholm’s decision value metrics don’t portray a pretty picture, especially for a guy who seems pretty firmly entrenched in the leadoff spot by manager Skip Schumaker (who is also in his first year like Quatraro).

On the other hand, Chisholm is seeing an upward trend in runs added lately, which can’t be said for Witt at this point in the season.

The good thing is that Chisholm is roughly three years older than Witt, so there’s still time for Witt to catch up to this Chisholm comparison.

If the Royals want to keep Witt at the leadoff spot for the next couple of years, than Chisholm could be a good model for what that could look like, though with fewer walks and strikeouts in the process.

How Long Will the Royals Keep Witt at Leadoff?

Unlike Schumaker with the Marlins, I think Quatraro will be a lot more fluid with where he bats Royals hitters down the road, including Witt.

That said, I sense the Royals’ reasoning behind playing Witt at leadoff is akin to their reasoning behind them starting Witt at shortstop this year despite better defensive options like Nicky Lopez and perhaps Garcia available.

JJ Picollo and the Royals front office want it known that they’re “behind” their star in every way, with the hope that they can perhaps sign him to a long-term extension in the near future.

On a defensive end, their faith in him playing shortstop has paid off, which can be seen in his improvement in many different fielding metrics, via Fangraphs.

UZR and DRS are shakier than OAA and RAA when it comes to defensive outlook. The former categories still see Witt as an around average SS, while OAA and RAA see him as a more “above average” one.

Nonetheless, regardless of the metric, the gains Witt has made is certainly noticeable and quantifiable (18 run improvement in DRS after all). Witt’s performance this year shows that he should at least be given the remainder of the season, and perhaps 2024, to prove that he can still handle the position long-term, regardless of the competition.

Picollo and the Quatraro’s faith in Bobby’s defense has paid off, and they’re hoping the same can happen with him in the leadoff spot.

That said, the fact of the matter is this: Witt is a power hitter with speed, not a speedster with power.

The former description suits a middle of the order hitter who could eventually matriculate back to the 3rd or 4th spot in the order. The latter describes a prototypical leadoff hitter.

Witt’s speed is fun, and he will steal a lot more bases over his long career, as long as he stays healthy. However, it is not enough to warrant him a solidified spot at the top of the Royals batting order for any extended period of time.

The sooner Quatraro gets Witt out of the leadoff spot, the better it will be for not just the Royals in the short-term, but Witt’s outlook in the long haul as well.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel | AP


3 thoughts on “Bobby Witt, Jr. and His Batting Order Conundrum With the Royals

  1. Really good piece. I am by no means an anti-advanced stats guy, but I think there’s also enough traditionalist in me that I chafe at Witt or Vinnie in the leadoff spot. I love Vinnie in the two spot, and I think you make a compelling case that the stats backup my reluctance to have Witt bat first. I think how good he’ll ultimately be in any spot will be up to him and his growth as a hitter, and I’m not saying he couldn’t be an ideal modern leadoff hitter eventually. But he’s not there yet. Even with his flaws, I’d prefer to see him in the three hole, which the stats you showcased seem to support. Biggest problem is I don’t have a good option to put forward for the leadoff role. MJ has too much swing and miss and is too streaky for that spot in my opinion, and I don’t like putting added pressure on a guy like Garcia who is so new to the Show. Nor do I like the idea of putting Pratto there. He’s actually producing, but it’s a small sample size for a guy who hasn’t been in the bigs very long either, so I’d prefer they not mess with that right now. Olivares is an intriguing candidate, but you can’t DH him everyday, and with his defense, can he be an everyday player? So I guess this is my long-winded way of saying I don’t have any good answers either, though if the Royals want to pay me what they’re paying Q and JJ, I’ll be glad to really dive into the problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I appreciate the read and your comments.

      It’s a tough dilemma for sure. Vinnie is an out of the box choice, but I’m not sure you want him out of those run-producing holes either. As for Witt, I think in time he could get there, especially if he can even lower the strikeout rate a little or up the walk rate a little. Chisholm is proving that he can handle leadoff by doing that, even though Jazz’s contact skills are inferior to Bobby’s. But, for a team starved for offense, I do wonder if having BWJ in more run-producing spots is better than having him setting up the offense, which is what is currently happening.

      Garcia would’ve convinced me a couple of weeks ago, but he’s slumping hard and I’m not sure how much better it will get. As for Pratto, I agree too. He’s on a heater but he could be due for regression soon. And MJ’s second best spot is leadoff, but he hasn’t really fared well at the spot this year, and he is producing career-high marks in the five spot. Now is that causation or correlation, I’m not sure, but I’m not ready to move MJ off that spot unless absolutely necessary.

      It isn’t an easy question to answer by all means and I think it could be one we may be asking ourselves all season until someone truly emerges.

      Liked by 1 person

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