CARY, N.C.—Colleyville (Texas) Heritage High coach Alan McDougal has known Bobby Witt Jr. for a long time.
Longer than the baseball community at large has, which seems surprising considering the national fame that the 2019 shortstop has had among scouts. McDougal has known Witt Jr. for about 10 years, first watching him play in his baseball camps when the boy was six, seven, eight years old.
“Even at that age,” McDougal said, “you could kind of tell something was special.”
McDougal remembers how his camps would come to a standstill when Witt would step up to the plate. Everyone would stop what they were doing and watch the son of Bobby Witt—who had a 16-year big league career and won a World Series with the Diamondbacks in his final 2001 season. Everything would get quiet and all eyes in the park would focus on him.
A similar phenomenon occurred at USA Baseball’s 2017 Tournament of Stars, when Witt stepped to the plate and took the field up the middle, alongside 2018 standout shortstop Brice Turang. Throughout the event, Witt Jr. displayed a range of tools, both offensively and defensively, hitting .333/.444/.400—one of just six players to tally five or more hits—while standing out on several different TrackMan categories as well, including the longest hit ball of the event.
While there’s some power in his bat, Witt’s most obvious tool is his speed, which shows up in every facet of the game and allowed him to clock a sub-4.00 run time to first base on an infield single in his first game of the tournament—easily an 80-grade time for a righthanded batter.
McDougal hesitates to put a 5-tool tag on any player, citing its cliche nature, but genuinely believes Witt is “probably as close as it gets to that.” Still, the elite speed is what sets McDougal believes sets his shortstop apart.
“He is probably the fastest kid in the park whenever you go watch him play,” McDougal said. “He's going to do really good at short, he's going to show off his arm, he can hit, he can hit for power. He really can do it all, but for me what really sets him apart is he is really, really fast. It is stupid.
“He beat out a ground ball to second base as a freshman, it was just kind of jaw-dropping. And I'd seen enough of him that as the ball was going—it was a fairly paced ground ball to second—and I was going, ‘Man if (the second baseman) blinks, he's going to be safe.’ And he was safe. Kind of patted his glove once and that was all he needed to run right through it.”
The speed showed up defensively at the USA Baseball National Training Complex, as well, in the form of outstanding range in the middle infield. McDougal said that at Colleyville, he was trying to get Witt to on his chest more to expand his range, as he was so accustomed to getting to ground balls everywhere without having to lay out on the dirt.
Add “quick learner” to the list of Witt’s tools then.
He had three balls hit to his left at second base and, off the bat, each looked like it was going to be a single through the infield. But on each occasion, the Oklahoma commit reacted quickly and dove with full extension to scoop up three balls that should have gotten to the outfield. While he was unable to convert any of these plays into outs, the growth in that area of his game is obvious.
“He looks at the game a little bit differently,” McDougal said. “And I think people way too often think that it's just God-given ability that sets these guys apart. And he has a lot of it. But he is so meticulous about getting better at his craft. I mean he really is driven about trying to be the best guy that he can be.”
While in Cary, being the best he can be meant learning from others. Specifically, Turang, who was his roommate for the week, plays the same position, and is also a guy who has played up with the top players in the class ahead of him (Turang was teammates with Hunter Greene and Nick Allen among others during the Area Code Games).
“It's an outstanding experience, just getting to play with the best 80 people in the country,” Witt said. “It's just a really unbelievable experience. (Brice) as a double play partner, he's surely the best shortstop in the country at his grade. I'm super comfortable (with him). He's my roommate and everything so I know him really well now.”
Turang knew how talented Witt was, and while he did say he gave him a few pointers, he more or less was himself on the field and off it, getting to know Witt and also pick up some things from the Texas shortstop that he could use to get better as well.
“He knows a lot of things, obviously he's a great player,” Turang said. “There's just little things you can teach him . . . I learned a lot about him. He's a great person and he's going to go a long way.”
McDougal would agree with that sentiment. Witt is currently on pace to be just the second full-time, four-year starter at Colleyville High. He has a habit of excelling on a big stage before he should. In the same way that Witt stopped the show as a 6-year-old in baseball camp, and as a freshman with Colleyville two years ago, he did it once again as one of just three 2019 graduates invited to Tournament of Stars, and looking like one of the best players at the event much more often than not.
“For a freshman to come in and play, and much less play all the time is very rare,” McDougal said. “Not only just playing, he excels and is one of the better kids on the field anytime we take the field. With his dad being a former big leaguer and staying in the game as an agent, he's had such exposure at a high level, just as he's grown up.
“So he's been around the game and he's kind of like a 16-year-old pro. He just carries himself really, really well. He is loved in the building, he is loved in the classroom, obviously I like him playing for me. So he's really the total package.”