Bobby Witt Jr.: 2021 Minor League Player Of The Year
When Royals director of hitting performance Alec Zumwalt first saw Bobby Witt Jr. in person, what stood out to him immediately was his personality.
Whether Witt was in the lineup or slotted in at DH or taking a day off, he was always smiling. There was an easygoing, exciting presence to Witt that was infectious to everyone watching him and playing with him.
But when Zumwalt got more hands-on with Kansas City’s 2019 first-round pick, he quickly realized the immense talent of the high school shortstop from Colleyville, Texas.
“The kid’s skill set is amazing,” Zumwalt said. “I have told a lot of people this, but right from the start the thing that stood out to me was how he could simplify what was so hard for most people—and most hitters.
“His cognitive ability to simplify his thoughts and simplify his mechanics and simplify his approach, it’s just so, so unique.”
Witt’s first pro season was limited to 37 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2019, but after losing the 2020 minor league season to the pandemic, he wasted no time getting back on track.
After standing out in big league spring training, Witt was assigned to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where he hit .295/.369/.570 with 16 home runs, 11 doubles and 14 stolen bases in 61 games. In mid July, after having recently turned 21, Witt was promoted to Triple-A Omaha. He performed equally well there, hitting .285/.352/.581 with 17 home runs, 24 doubles and 15 stolen bases.
In 123 total games, Witt batted .290/.361/.575 with 33 homers, 35 doubles and 29 stolen bases. He swiped his 30th base on Sept. 30, only to see the game canceled by rain. Thus he fell one steal shy of a 30-30 season.
Among players 21 or younger who played in the upper minors this season, Witt’s offensive production as measured by OPS (.936) stood out. D-backs outfielder Alek Thomas (.953) surpassed Witt, but other notable prospects stood a pace behind, including the Mets’ Mark Vientos (.933), the Dodgers’ Miguel Vargas (.906) and the Tigers’ duo of Spencer Torkelson (.935) and Riley Greene (.921).
For his excellence at a young age and advanced level, Witt is the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year.
“He is a complete player,” Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. “He can hit for power. He can hit for average. He can steal bases. He can play shortstop. Most of the young guys who we get now think the game owes them. And he plays it like he owes the game.”
“He has an easiness on the field, but he works extremely hard behind the scenes,” Northwest Arkansas manager Scott Thorman said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him. He’s hit for power. He’s played defense. I mean, he’s a true five-tool threat.”
As Thorman mentioned, the game does appear to come just a little bit easier to Witt than other players. When asked about an area where he struggled or found difficulties this year, after skipping Class A entirely, Witt struggled to immediately come up with an answer.
But he did eventually find one.
“I guess sometimes on the road, after games, it’s kind of tough to find a spot to eat,” Witt said with a chuckle. “That’s about it.”
That’s not to say Witt has never been challenged or pushed. One just has to dig a bit deeper to find those moments. And given the lack of a 2020 season, the evidence won’t be found in any box score.
“During the month of April (in 2020), when he was at the alternate site, he was challenged,” Zumwalt said. “He and I had some really good conversations through that. He was trying to do some things that he didn’t necessarily need to do from a performance standpoint. We just had to get him back to being Bobby.”
At the Royals’ alternate training site in 2020, Witt was facing more advanced arms than he would have faced in a typical season. The Royals went all-in on college pitchers in the early rounds of the 2018 draft, selecting the likes of righthanders Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar and Jonathan Bowlan and lefthanders Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic, all before the third round.
“He was facing better pitching than he would have faced during the season last year, every day,” Zumwalt said. “So I think his growth was pushed in the right direction.”
There weren’t any mechanical changes that Witt needed to make to adjust to the more advanced pitchers. He simply needed to continue doing what he always did, and let his natural athleticism and baseball instincts take over.
Zumwalt remembers having conversations with Witt, encouraging him to think back to when he was a kid hitting with his dad, Bobby Witt Sr., who pitched in the big leagues for 16 years, and just hitting naturally.
“I believe, more now than ever before in my life, of the naturalness of a hitter,” Zumwalt said. “Bobby has that naturalness to hit. And it would be the worst thing that ever happened to him for someone to try and take that away or change that.”
Perhaps the biggest change for Witt between now and when he was drafted second overall two years ago is his strength. He works out with Bobby Stroupe—who also trains Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes—in the offseason. The physical gains he has made in just a few years are noticeable.
He’s less lean and more filled out, and he has noticed those changes in physical maturation in the batter’s box.
“I am able to drive the ball to right field (and to) center field,” Witt said. “I am able to hit mistakes that might be a ball, but I can use my strength just to get it out to left field.”
Among players 21 or younger this season, Witt’s 33 home runs ranked first. Only Torkelson and the Dodgers' Andy Pages reached 30. Pages spent all season at High-A, while Witt played 22 more games at Triple-A than Torkelson.
“The age he’s at, at the level he’s at, to do what he’s doing puts him in a very elite category,” Thorman said.
For as loud as Witt’s statistical performance has been, the people who have been around him don’t rave about his power or his bat speed or his slick defensive ability.
“You could probably ask any player in our organization—any coach or any clubhouse attendant, any trainer or strength and conditioning person—and they won’t even talk about these tools,” Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg said.
“They will talk about what an incredible human being he is. And he is. He is the ultimate team player first.
“When your best player could be your hardest worker and the greatest teammate, you have a chance to do enormous things as an organization. And that’s him to a T . . . He is as humble as you’re ever going to find. I can’t find enough accolades or boxes to check for Bobby Witt Jr. that are out there—he doesn’t leave anything unchecked.”
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Goldberg first saw Witt as an underclassman with USA Baseball. His athleticism and tools jumped out right away as a premium position player, and quickly afterward it became obvious how skilled he was, on top of his natural ability.
Picking second in the 2019 draft, the Royals had a number of high-quality prospects to choose from after the Orioles drafted Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman No. 1 overall.
Kansas City could take a polished college hitter such as California first baseman Andrew Vaughn or Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday. Or it could chase upside with a high school hitter such as Florida outfielder Riley Greene and Georgia shortstop CJ Abrams.
“It was a good draft,” Goldberg said. “There were several players up at the top, and you have to be open-minded.”
Even with a loaded group of high-end talent, it quickly became clear Witt was the Royals’ preferred choice. Opposing scouts would talk about how any time they went to see Witt play for his Colleyville Heritage High team, a Royals scout—or several—would be there and ask them why they were wasting their time.
About a month before the draft, the Royals scouting department wasn’t too concerned with continuing to scout him like a typical draft pick.
“It wasn’t that you were totally evaluating him. You were enjoying him,” Goldberg said. “We had scouts from other areas come in and watch, because you want to make sure that as a scout you continue to develop. You want guys to see really good players so they can go back into their area or their region and compare.”
While Witt might have indirectly helped scouts improve at their jobs, he directly benefited his teammates this season. He played alongside 2017 first- and second-round picks Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez at both Double-A and Triple-A.
Both Pratto and Melendez have had loud bouncebacks after disappointing 2019 seasons at High-A. All three were first-team BA Minor League All-Stars this season.
Witt was quick to credit Pratto hitting behind him for his own success, but those in the Royals organization think the group has helped elevate each other, given the combination of their talent and camaraderie off the field.
The trio of Witt, Pratto and Melendez push each other to get better, and Witt has shown a thirst for reps and more knowledge wherever he can get it. He’s constantly picking the brains of teammates and coaches and instructors—writing down notes from conversations that others might think of as routine and endlessly preparing for taking that next step.
“It’s always in the back of everyone’s head,” Witt said about making his major league debut. “But I just try to be where my feet are at and take everything day by day. I think that’s helped with everything, not trying to look at, ‘Oh, I should be here or I should be here,’ or trying to play GM.
“I just have to go out there and do my job and when the time’s right, the time’s right.”
Given Witt’s outstanding 2021 campaign, fans in Kansas City will likely see him penciled into the MLB lineup sooner rather than later. And when Witt does get the call, he’ll be worth the price of admission.
Royals fans have seen plenty of homegrown prospect talent blossom in the big leagues. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon were Kansas City first-round picks who helped lead the franchise to a World Series championship in 2015.
Poldberg was around when that group was working its way through the minor leagues and didn’t hesitate with where he’d place Witt among them.
“In 2010, I had Hosmer and Moustakas, and in 2011, Wil Myers,” Poldberg said. “(Witt) is at the top of that bunch.”
For his part, Witt is just trying to keep to his simple approach on both sides of the ball.
“Be ready to hit. Be on time. And just hit the ball where it’s pitched, really,” Witt said. “That’s kind of been my mantra . . . I try to just make the little things happen. Having that mindset really just makes the game a lot easier.
“I learned that I don’t have to do much more than be myself. That was the biggest thing I think I learned this year. I don’t have to take it a step up (in Double-A), go to Triple-A, ‘Oh, I have to make myself even better.’
“No, I just really have to go out there and be Bobby Witt Jr., make things as simple as possible and go out there and have fun.”
So far, Witt has lived up to all the hype and expectations that come with being the No. 2 overall draft pick, the BA High School Player of the Year and now the Minor League Player of the Year.
It’s hard to say with any certainty what will come next, but those closest to Witt expect that it will be something special.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not going to tell you who he reminds me of, because it’s not fair to Bobby,” Zumwalt said. “Bobby Witt Jr. is going to be Bobby Witt Jr.. . . I refuse to put a ceiling on what he could be.
“Because he’s going to write that story. And I think that it’s going to be a great story.”