Bobby Witt Jr. May Be 2023’s Best-Kept Secret

Bobby Witt Jr
Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Two months ago, if you asked me to name the most disappointing member of the phenom class, I’d have said Bobby Witt Jr. With barely a month of professional games past high school under his belt, he was invited to spring training in 2021 and hit three homers and put up an .851 OPS, creating chatter around baseball that he might start the season with the parent club. That was a bit premature, though he did spend the next six months terrorizing minor league pitchers into thinking long and hard about their choice of occupation. But in 2022 and early on in ’23, brevity was no longer the soul of Witt, as his whirlwind professional progress slowed to become one of those inevitably anemic breezes on an unpleasantly muggy July day.

Things appeared to reach their nadir in late June, when his OPS almost dipped under .700 once again. Since then, however, Witt has been on a tear, hitting .350/.385/.662, not only bringing his OPS safely over the .700 line but also getting it over .800. Since the morning of June 30, he’s been one of the absolute best players in baseball, providing a rare highlight for the 2023 Royals:

Position Player WAR Leaders since 6/30
Player WAR HR BA OBP SLG BABIP
Matt Olson 2.8 17 .362 .471 .787 .354
Bobby Witt Jr. 2.8 11 .350 .385 .662 .370
Cody Bellinger 2.8 11 .401 .440 .671 .391
Mookie Betts 2.8 11 .353 .452 .698 .352
Freddie Freeman 2.6 9 .368 .446 .664 .402
Ha-Seong Kim 김하성 2.4 6 .331 .435 .507 .373
Ronald Acuña Jr. 2.3 8 .351 .454 .558 .365
Lars Nootbaar 2.2 8 .317 .415 .566 .352
Chas McCormick 2.2 9 .331 .418 .628 .437
Kyle Tucker 2.2 12 .320 .409 .633 .303
Francisco Lindor 2.1 6 .297 .394 .507 .343
Corey Seager 2.1 12 .360 .408 .763 .354
Austin Riley 2.0 15 .305 .345 .646 .327
Marcus Semien 1.9 8 .278 .375 .497 .270
Manny Machado 1.8 12 .264 .362 .547 .241
Shohei Ohtani 1.8 12 .287 .433 .636 .362
Christian Yelich 1.7 7 .318 .389 .522 .352
James Outman 1.7 5 .304 .439 .473 .397
J.P. Crawford 1.7 4 .323 .436 .512 .385
Wilmer Flores 1.6 9 .355 .402 .661 .351

I’ve included BABIP here for a very good reason: when players are having hot streaks, BABIP is usually a big reason why. After all, players playing at their peak are more likely to be playing above their abilities than below. Witt is no exception here, with his numbers fueled in part by a .370 BABIP over that period. But I include that figure not to defuse my thesis, but to reinforce it. While a BABIP that high is hard to sustain over the long haul, ZiPS’ zBABIP thinks that .370 mark only barely outperforms what he’s actually done in the last month and a half.

(As a side note, you’ll notice that we’ve made changes to our leaderboards that have gone live this week! You can now do things like get positional splits in the standard leaderboards, not just players who qualify at a position. You can read more about our changes here; let us know what you think and what you’d like to see in the future!)

zBABIP Leaders since June 30
Name zBABIP BABIP
Jesús Sánchez .382 .388
Ronald Acuña Jr. .378 .365
Bo Bichette .374 .413
Tim Anderson .363 .344
Matt McLain .360 .358
Bobby Witt Jr. .359 .370
Jared Triolo .357 .387
Maikel Garcia .356 .382
Elly De La Cruz .355 .344
Edouard Julien .355 .385
Garrett Cooper .353 .323
Seiya Suzuki .352 .318
Oscar Colás .352 .288
Ryan Mountcastle .352 .477
Michael Harris II .352 .364
Shohei Ohtani .351 .362
Bryan Reynolds .350 .269
Bryson Stott .349 .349
Trea Turner .348 .310
Steven Kwan .347 .310

In other words, Witt should have a high BABIP in recent weeks. Combined with him being a zBB underachiever, zStats thinks that he’s performing slightly worse than expected given his plate discipline and Statcast-level data, pegging him for an .825 OPS instead of his current .814. The result is a projection that’s more robust than you may guess from the in-season model that appears on Witt’s player page. I’ll be nice and give out the whole shebang rather than greedily limit it to just a few years:

ZiPS Projection – Bobby Witt Jr.
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2024 .275 .322 .483 601 91 165 35 6 26 95 38 132 31 117 1 4.1
2025 .278 .326 .489 612 95 170 36 6 27 97 40 130 30 120 1 4.5
2026 .278 .327 .485 615 96 171 36 5 27 97 41 127 27 119 1 4.4
2027 .278 .328 .484 609 96 169 35 5 27 96 42 125 25 120 1 4.5
2028 .275 .328 .471 596 93 164 34 4 25 92 43 121 21 117 0 4.0
2029 .276 .329 .472 579 90 160 33 4 24 88 42 117 18 117 0 3.8
2030 .276 .329 .469 557 87 154 32 3 23 84 40 113 16 116 -1 3.6
2031 .274 .326 .460 533 81 146 30 3 21 79 38 109 14 113 -2 3.1
2032 .274 .326 .460 533 80 146 30 3 21 78 38 110 13 113 -3 3.0
2033 .273 .324 .454 502 74 137 28 3 19 72 35 104 11 111 -3 2.6
2034 .271 .323 .448 469 68 127 26 3 17 66 33 99 9 109 -4 2.2
2035 .267 .318 .438 434 61 116 23 3 15 59 30 92 7 105 -5 1.6
2036 .262 .312 .417 393 52 103 21 2 12 52 26 84 6 99 -5 1.1
2037 .262 .310 .415 340 44 89 18 2 10 43 22 74 4 97 -6 0.7
2038 .259 .311 .404 270 34 70 14 2 7 33 18 59 3 95 -5 0.4
2039 .254 .302 .392 189 23 48 9 1 5 22 12 42 2 89 -4 0.1

Witt isn’t in the ultra-superstar tier yet, but his 2023 season has improved his projections to the point that he can legitimately be considered one of the default All-Star options at shortstop for the next five to seven years or so.

It’s not just his offense that’s taken a step forward; so has his defense, which was one of the sticking points in his profile as a prospect. It wasn’t a sure thing whether he’d be at short instead of third base long term; RAA (-7), DRS (-18) and UZR (-7) all hated his glove work last year, and his defensive numbers at third only grading out as “mediocre” was another negative data point. ZiPS is designed to be fairly conservative with the magnitude of its defensive projections for players with little experience, but it certainly thought that Witt was well below average defensively entering the season. But he’s improved by double digits in all the defensive metrics this season while exclusively playing short — enough that ZiPS thinks we should be confident now that he’s a league-average defender at the position, a noted improvement.

As to how Witt has improved at short, Jake Mintz already delved into that recently in an article talking about the changes he made to get better at the position:

For a crash course in rewiring his defensive approach, Witt’s personal hitting coach Jeremy Isenhower invited well-known private infield coach Nate Trosky out to his hitting facility in Tomball, Texas, for two days of intensive training with the young shortstop. In the nippy mid-December chill, Trosky, an eccentric, fast talking, sun-hat wearing, country-song singing, infield mental skills expert, ran Witt through nearly six straight hours of instruction.

We could possibly even be underrating Witt if the sea change in his projections turns out to be as large as it looks at first glance, due to the conservatism of any useful projection system. As it is, he has one of the largest changes in 2024–28 projections of any player at his position. Among players who started the year with established roles in the majors, he’s seen the second-largest jump among shortstops.

ZiPS Most Changed 2024-2028 Projections (SS)
Player Before 2022 Before 2023 Now Since Start of 2023
Elly De La Cruz 5.5 7.6 16.8 9.2
Matt McLain 5.5 11.2 20.2 9.1
Wander Franco 27.1 17.5 25.6 8.1
Zach Neto N/A 1.5 9.0 7.4
Masyn Winn 2.1 3.1 10.1 7.0
Bobby Witt Jr. 20.2 15.6 21.6 6.0
Luke Waddell 2.5 3.6 9.3 5.6
Jose Caballero 1.3 1.2 6.8 5.6
Austin Gauthier -1.3 -2.8 2.5 5.4
Luisangel Acuña -5.3 -4.1 1.2 5.2
Jordan Westburg 7.9 10.7 15.2 4.5
Geraldo Perdomo 6.7 5.9 10.0 4.1
Aeverson Arteaga -4.1 -3.8 0.0 3.8
Cristian Gonzalez N/A -8.9 -5.2 3.7
Ryan Bliss 2.9 2.9 6.5 3.6
Player Before 2022 Before 2023 Now Diff
Tim Anderson 10.0 7.6 2.2 -5.5
Adalberto Mondesi 7.2 9.0 3.8 -5.1
Gabriel Arias 14.7 8.7 3.7 -5.0
Trea Turner 21.4 26.0 21.2 -4.8
Carlos Correa 19.6 25.5 20.8 -4.8
Alex De Goti 2.3 6.3 1.8 -4.4
Javier Báez 12.4 11.7 7.3 -4.4
Amed Rosario 8.3 10.3 5.9 -4.4
Jose Salas 7.4 8.5 4.3 -4.2
Jose Torres 1.1 5.1 1.0 -4.1
Trevor Story 12.6 14.2 10.1 -4.1
Cal Conley -3.8 1.0 -2.7 -3.7
Oneil Cruz 15.8 15.6 12.1 -3.5
Riley Unroe 0.1 3.6 0.2 -3.5
Tommy Edman 16.1 18.5 15.4 -3.1

In essence, if 2022 dampened your spirits about Witt’s phenom status, then 2023 should have restored them. And that’s good news for a Royals team that has slogged through a bad year on the field and has an equally rough-looking future. Vinnie Pasquantino’s five-year WAR increased by 2.7 since the start of the season but has fallen since May because of a shoulder injury that ended his season. MJ Melendez being a mediocre outfielder rather than a mediocre catcher has knocked 10 points off his five-year WAR. Maikel Garcia’s five-year change is at -2.2, Nick Pratto at -1.4, and so on. At +2.2, Michael Massey is one of the few Royals hitters who has seen their five-year WAR projection improve by a win.

There aren’t many reasons to watch the Royals right now. But in seeing Bobby Witt Jr. become the player people hoped he would, there’s now at least one, so flip over to their games from time-to-time!





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Zachary Ericksonmember
9 months ago

He turned on a Jhoan Duran 102 MPH heater to hit a grand slam during this stretch. As a Twins fan, this makes me feel marginally better about that late July sweep.