Baseball's next superstar? Bobby Witt Jr.'s rise to MLB's top tier

THE MAGNIFICENCE OF Bobby Witt Jr. manifests itself on nearly every square inch of a baseball field. His swing is short and to the point, like the man himself, and it thwacks balls from foul pole to foul pole, often past them. His glove and arm are pocket aces — individually excellent, together almost unassailable. His legs, though, offer the greatest splendor, the apex of the Bobby Witt experience, which is unlike anything in baseball.

Witt, who turned 24 Friday, is the shortstop for the Kansas City Royals, the biggest surprise in baseball. They own the eighth-best record in the game (41-32) after going 56-106 last season, and the signature win of their season came a week before Witt’s birthday. The Seattle Mariners, who occupy first place in the American League West, built an 8-0 lead. Kansas City chipped away, and up came Witt in the bottom of the eighth inning with the deficit shaved to 9-8 and a runner on second.

Before stepping into the batter’s box, he had looked on the inside of his helmet, where he had written reminders on how to summon the best version of himself. See the ball. Stay loose. Be on time. They are the sorts of things that allow him to be present, something he picked up when he realized the mental element of baseball can help mobilize the physical. On a hanging 0-2 splitter from Ryne Stanek, Witt sizzled a ball down the third-base line. And then he started to run.

Less than 11 seconds later — 10.98, to be exact, because every hundredth of a second deserves mention when you run like a sprinter — Witt’s right hand touched third base. Going from home plate to third base in under 11 seconds takes the sort of physical aptitude rarely seen in baseball, and it would’ve been even faster had Witt not launched himself into the air with a head-first slide into the bag. Two minutes later, he zoomed home and scored the winning run, securing the third-largest comeback in the Royals’ 56-year history.

On the field afterward for a postgame interview piped through Kauffman Stadium’s speakers, Witt managed to sum up the night aptly: “What do y’all think? Pretty fun?” The crowd responded by serenading Witt with one word, over and over: “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, Bobby… “

To his family, Witt is Junior, and to his teammates just Bob. To everyone else, he’s Bobby, an earned mononym in his third season in the league.

Nobody in baseball runs as fast as Witt (as the Mariners can attest). Nobody, according to FanGraphs, has provided more defensive value this year. Only Shohei Ohtani, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto have hit more balls 95 mph or harder. Witt has thrust himself to the forefront of best-of lists across the game. Best shortstop? Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Gunnar Henderson and Witt. Best player, under 25? Henderson and Witt. Best player, period? All of the above, plus Aaron Judge, Soto and Ohtani.

Sound unlikely? Consider this: Since the end of July 2023, Witt has been the best player in baseball, according to FanGraphs WAR. In his past 128 games, Witt slashed .325/.372/.573 with 25 home runs, 96 RBIs, 105 runs, 41 steals and 7.9 wins. More than Judge (7.2), Soto (6.9), Betts (6.9) and Henderson (6.7), the next four over that stretch.

All the tools were there when Witt debuted two years ago, but to see them turn into skills so quickly suggests the sort of trajectory that can carry the Royals to heights unseen in nearly a decade. Since they won the World Series in 2015, the Royals haven’t had a winning season and have lost at least 103 games three times. Witt believed enough in the franchise’s offseason — in which Kansas City guaranteed more than $100 million to free agents — to sign an 11-year, $288.8 million contract extension in February.

“When I get attached to something, I love it,” Witt said. “I enjoy it and I try to make the most of it. Try to see how I can make it better in ways that I feel like other people may not be able to. Just try to make everyone the best they can possibly be.”

Before he could do that, Witt needed to make himself the best he can possibly be. And that evolution started two years ago, on a perfect Kansas City spring day.

April 7, 2022

INSIDE A SUITE down the first-base line at Kauffman Stadium, Bobby and Laurie Witt were watching the culmination of their baby boy’s hard work. It was Opening Day, and Kansas City royalty were down the hall in another suite to see Junior’s major league debut, including the just-crowned NCAA men’s basketball champion Kansas Jayhawks and the city’s mayor, Quinton Lucas. The most recognizable of all poked his head into the Witt suite in the fourth inning and asked: “Can I come in?”

Of course, they told George Brett. He was Laurie’s favorite player growing up and is still the lone Hall of Famer in Royals history. Brett has long been the prototypical Royal, and to see Witt batting second and playing third base — Brett’s position — felt positively symmetrical.

“And that’s the thing,” Brett said that day. “I don’t want to put any pressure on him. It’s hard enough to play in the big leagues. So many players get here and they don’t know what they’re doing. But he’s different. He’s a natural.”

Witt’s ascent took no one by surprise. By his sophomore year at Colleyville (Texas) Heritage High, he was his class’ No. 1-ranked player in the nation. A year later, he won the High School Home Run Derby. Six months after that, he secured a gold medal and international tournament MVP for a Team USA that included two more future major league shortstops (Anthony Volpe and CJ Abrams), three outfielders (Corbin Carroll, Riley Greene and Pete Crow-Armstrong) and a No. 2 overall pick (Dylan Crews). The only thing that kept Witt from going to Baltimore with the first pick in the 2019 draft was Adley Rutschman, who’s going to make his second All-Star team this year.

Kansas City gladly snatched Witt with the second pick, and when COVID-19 hit in 2020, the Royals invited him to their alternate site to monitor his development. Having just turned 20, Witt was the best player in the camp — 6-foot-1, 200 pounds of quick-twitch goodness with the brain of someone who grew up in baseball clubhouses. Not with his dad, a 16-year MLB veteran who retired a year after Witt was born, but with his brothers-in-law, as all three of his older sisters married big leaguers, a Sequoia of a baseball family tree.

In early August 2020, former New York Mets ace Matt Harvey went to the alt site to build up his pitch count after signing a minor league deal with the Royals and faced Witt, who battled him through an at-bat that lasted more than a dozen pitches. When he finished the inning, Harvey went into the dugout with a gobsmacked look.

“Who the hell is that kid?” he asked. “He looks like he’s 12.”

That’s Bobby Witt Jr., he was told.

“Well, whoever he is,” Harvey said, “he’s pretty good.”

He was more than pretty good. Witt won every minor league player of the year award in 2021 and was so good in spring training in 2022 that the Royals couldn’t send him down. All of that promise showed up in his first game against Cleveland. He smoked a ball 110.4 mph. He busted nearly 31 feet per second down the first-base line. He fired a ball nearly 90 mph across the diamond. And in the bottom of the eighth inning, he yanked his first hit, a go-ahead double, into the left-field corner, giving him a game-winning RBI in game No. 1.

They chanted “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, Bobby” that day, and they did it again two days later when in the 10th inning Witt dove to snag a ball hit down the third-base line, swiveled and made a seemingly impossible, off-balance throw to nab Owen Miller at the plate. It was Witt’s 20th professional game at third, and he was making the sorts of plays reserved for Brooks Robinson and Nolan Arenado.

When asked about the play following the game, Witt demurred and deferred credit to catcher Salvador Perez (whose swipe tag was impressive, sure, but paled compared to the throw). It became a recurring theme throughout his rookie season. On the day of Witt’s first major league home run, he was asked to do the postgame interview and responded, “What about M.J.?” Fellow rookie MJ Melendez had gotten his first major league hit that day, and Witt wanted him to get his shine, too.

“This is what I’ve been working for my whole life,” Witt said in 2022, “and I’ve got to go out there, be myself, have fun, enjoy it, take it all in, and just try to be the best teammate I can be, the best person I can be on the field and off the field so my teammates respect me.”

Witt finished his first big league season with 20 home runs, 30 stolen bases and a stranglehold on the shortstop position, which he took over when Adalberto Mondesi got hurt. Witt struck out too much and didn’t walk enough, but the Royals figured he was gifted enough to make the necessary physical adjustments. More than the exit velocity or speed or arm strength or soft hands, team officials marveled at how little Bobby Witt Jr. concerned himself with Bobby Witt Jr.’s accolades. The selflessness, the deflection, the humility — that, more than anything on the field, served as the foundation of who he could become.

Or, as one Royals staffer put it, all Junior wants to do is use good manners and play baseball with his friends.

July 28, 2023

OVER THE FIRST month of the 2023 season, Witt struggled to do much of anything right. He was 9 for 60 in the last two weeks of April. The Royals were 7-22 when the calendar turned to May. Something needed to change. So on May 1, only the third off-day of the season, Witt summoned his personal hitting coach, Jeremy Isenhower, to guide him through the struggles with an impromptu session at Premier Baseball, a facility tucked away in an industrial park in suburban Kansas City.

“The more I hit, the more I feel things, the more I feel like I get better,” Witt said. “So it’s just figuring out little things — what felt right, what felt wrong, what was I doing that wasn’t right? Just try to simplify everything. That was at the time where I was struggling a little bit, but then also starting to figure some things out.”

Witt’s bugaboos were high fastballs and early-count swings. He didn’t tinker with his mechanics, though. He rarely does. Witt’s best chance at adjusting to high fastballs was cranking up a pitching machine to feed him 105-mph invisiballs. He paired them with sliders that moved more than any human arm is capable of producing.

“I try to do things in the cage that are almost harder than in the game,” Witt said. “Whether it’s more velocity just to try to get me out of my swing and to make me feel uncomfortable, if I speed up the game in the cage, then when I get out to the actual game, it’s even slower.”

The day after his session with Isenhower, Witt homered. He went deep again three games later. Consistency still eluded him in May, but by the time June rolled around Witt started to feel more comfortable with his altered approach. In July, he started punishing fastballs in the upper third of the zone, including the one on which he put one of the most magnificent swings of the 2023 season across baseball.

On July 28, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th inning and a full count, Jhoan Duran, the flamethrowing Minnesota Twins closer, started a 101.8-mph four-seam fastball over the middle of the plate and in the upper third of the strike zone. It ran 10 inches, boring in on Witt, just off the inside edge of the plate. Witt swung and met the ball out front, crushing it to left field for a walk-off grand slam.

The last time a big leaguer pulled a pitch that fast for a home run had come more than a year earlier. Turning on 102 mph and squaring it well enough to send it over the fence takes a rare skill set. For all of the natural gifts, Witt’s willingness to work, to avoid settling, defines him. Whether it was his weakness with the fastball or improving his mental game — he started a daily meditation routine midseason last year in addition to the scrawlings inside his helmet — Witt’s expectations consistently exceed the sky-high external ones.

“It’s such a special persona,” Royals manager Matt Quatraro said. “It’s humble, but it’s confident. People respect him. When a guy like Bobby earns the respect of a guy like Sal so quickly in his career that speaks to the person he is and the reason you would want to build around him.”

From the day of the Duran enervation through the end of the 2023 season, Witt batted .323/.369/.598 with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs in 56 games. He ended the year with 5.9 wins above replacement, cut his strikeout rate in half, upped his walk rate and turned from a mediocre defender at shortstop to one of the best in Major League Baseball. What the Royals believed he would be when they drafted him, what Brett thought he saw on the day of the debut, Witt was now demonstrating. Nobody in MLB history had at least 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases in each of his first two seasons until Witt. This, the Royals believed, was simply the beginning. And they knew what they needed to do.

Feb. 6, 2024

ON THE DAY he signed one of the biggest contracts in baseball history, Witt showed up at Kauffman Stadium wearing a blue suit that matched the Royals’ City Connect uniform and powder blue shoes, an homage to the 1980s Royals that invigorated the city. It was a Kansas City outfit for a Kansas City day.

“This is a great day in Royals history,” Royals general manager J.J. Picollo said, “and really Kansas City history.”

In September, Royals owner John Sherman asked to meet with Witt and his father, who became an agent after retiring in 2001. He wanted to understand Witt’s priorities, make clear that he intended to spend in free agency over the winter and explain that he planned to make a long-term extension offer, which the team did at the winter meetings in December. The sides traded proposals for the next two months before settling on a structure outlined by assistant general manager Scott Sharp that allowed Witt to opt out of the deal after the 2031, 2032, 2033 and 2034 seasons but still guaranteed him the second-most money for a player under 25, behind Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340 million deal in February 2021.

When the news of Witt’s contract broke, his phone lit up. Congratulations flooded in. At one point, he looked down and appreciated what greeted him.

“It was four texts, back-to-back,” Witt said. “[Patrick] Mahomes, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Trout and then Zack Greinke.”

The best quarterback in the world, one who jumped on the bandwagon early, seeing in Witt the sort of talent the rest of the world sees in Mahomes. A former American League MVP. A three-time AL MVP. And a future Hall of Fame pitcher who spent his final two seasons as Witt’s teammate.

“I think,” Witt said of Greinke’s text, “he said something like, ‘Yikes, I would’ve signed that contract, too. Congrats.'”

The Royals knew they needed to pay Witt closer to free agent value compared to some of the other team-friendly deals signed by his peers. As much as Witt loved the embrace of Kansas City, the losing exasperated him. Signing this deal was a gamble for Witt, even after Sherman kept his word and guaranteed more money in free agency this winter than his previous four years owning the team combined. The magnitude of the deal likewise spooked the Royals, whose revenues pale compared to bigger-market teams. Each side found comfort in their discomfort.

“You give those long-term contracts — there’s a ton of risk in that,” Quatraro said. “But the organization — rightfully so, in my opinion — feels like those risks are very minimal with a guy like Bobby because of his upbringing and the way he handles himself. He sidesteps those derailers or those landmines pretty well.”

Witt’s parents and his fiancée, Maggie Black, grinned throughout the news conference. His comfort informed theirs. It was almost as if he understood what was coming — the 9-4 start, the eight-game winning streak in May, holding their own against the best teams in baseball. While they went 5-7 in their most recent two-week stretch against four first-place teams — Seattle, Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles — the Royals held possession of the second wild-card slot in the AL and still have the seventh-best run differential in MLB at plus-61.

“We’ve just got to prove ourselves right, we don’t have to prove anyone else wrong,” Witt said. “We just got to see what we’re made of.”

It has Kansas City imagining where the team will be a few months from now. In less than four months, the MLB playoffs begin, and Witt wants nothing more than to be there. His teammates see it, and they’re beginning to hear it as well — the inner competitor in Witt coming out, everyone’s success the accelerant.

“The way he prepares himself is everything,” Perez said. “He’s super humble. But he likes to compete, play hard, run hard. He can hit a groundball to the pitcher and he’ll still bust his ass to first base. That tells you what kind of player he is. I’ve got a lot of respect for everybody here, bro. I hope they look at him and try to be like him. Players at that age have the ability to come to the ballpark and get ready in 10 minutes. He takes his time, he takes care of his body, he knows what he wants to do. I think he’s the best player I’ve ever played with in this organization.”

For Perez, a highly respected eight-time All-Star, to so deeply embrace someone who was 11 years old when Perez debuted speaks to Witt’s ability to ingratiate himself. He leads with good manners and follows up with the production — this year an AL-best .327 batting average, 96 hits and 59 runs, plus a .928 OPS, 11 home runs, 51 RBIs and 20 stolen bases.

“Now his edge is proving to himself and to everyone else that he’s got that next level,” Quatraro said, “that he can be the best at this level for years to come.”

For a city that’s home to Mahomes and Travis Kelce, Witt is surprisingly ubiquitous. One day he’ll show up at a local elementary school and the next on a new billboard. He stumped for a new Royals stadium — which failed in an April election — and almost assuredly will do it again, this time from the perch of a winner. He signs autographs every day. He does the sorts of things the centerpiece of a franchise ought and does them without complaint.

Though why would he? Life is good for Bobby Witt. He coined a phrase earlier this year — “The boys are playing some ball” — that caught on among fans and has been turned into a T-shirt. He’s getting married in mid-December. He’s smack in the middle of the AL MVP race with Judge, Soto and Henderson. He is far from the final version of himself, closer to a nascent product than a finished one.

“The first two years I’m trying to figure out where’s my place, but now I know that this is where I’m going to be and it feels great. It feels right,” Witt said. “Knowing my role, knowing my job, not trying to step on toes still, but then also knowing I’m very comfortable.

“I look at this offseason [like I] committed to two big things. I got engaged, so committing to Maggie, and then committing to the Royals. I’m going to give my all to both of them and just show up each and every day with a smile on my face, be myself and go out and have fun. Enjoy it. Enjoy it while it lasts for sure.”

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