Can Bobby Witt Jr. Start 2021 In MLB? He's Already In A Select Group Of Prep Hitters.
There has been plenty of speculation about whether shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. will make the Royals' Opening Day roster. While it still seems unlikely that a player who has yet to play a game above Rookie-level could jump all the way to Kansas City, it no longer seems impossible.
“I’m very open minded on him being on this team as we break camp,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore told SiriusXM’s Fantasy Alarm show. “The fact that Bobby Witt is still in camp and (manager) Mike (Matheny) continues to play him . . . he’s earned the respect of his teammates.”
Whether Witt makes the Opening Day roster or not, he’s already had a notable spring training. It’s not just because of his 484-foot home run or other highlight plays. What’s less noticed, but just as notable, is how often he’s playing.
It’s long been our contention that baseball teams subtly provide information with their roster decisions. Years ago, we wrote about the awful track record of high school first-round hitters who failed to make a full-season roster coming out of spring training in their second pro seasons.
That adage has remained accurate, though it likely is about to become obsolete thanks to the elimination of short-season and Rookie-level outside of the complexes.
But there’s another strong indicator of how a team truly thinks about a player—watch how much playing time a team gives a top prep first-round hitter in their second spring training.
Now, we’re not talking about the stats of these players. We’re talking about simply watching how much their team decides to play them.
Many top 10 overall picks are going to get at least a courtesy plate appearance or two in the spring training that takes place some 21 months after they were drafted. But to stick around and get regular work that early in a pro career means that the player must be doing something to really impress the big league staff. Those who do are generally players who are on their way to doing great things.
This is Witt’s second spring training after he was drafted second overall in 2019. It’s also the second spring training for Riley Greene (2019 fifth overall pick) and CJ Abrams (2019 sixth overall pick). All three are seeing extensive playing time this spring. Witt’s 40 plate appearances ranked seventh-most in the majors as of March 18. Abrams’ 38 PAs ranked ninth most. Greene has a more modest but still significant 23 PAs.
That’s a great sign for all three players. We have access to spring training stats going back to 2006, which means we can look at prep hitters picked in the top 10 picks since 2004 and see how many plate appearances they had in the second spring training following their draft.
The average number of plate appearances for players in this study—high school hitters drafted in the top 10 picks—is 12.5 in that second spring training. But that number is skewed by the few who play a lot. The median plate appearances for the group is just six.
All together, there are 34 prep hitters taken in the top 10 picks over that time frame. For the purposes of this study, we decided to include Bryce Harper. He was drafted out of junior college, but only because he reclassified to head to junior college for what would have been his junior year of high school. Age-wise he was one of the youngest players in the 2010 draft and fits more appropriately with high school draftees.
There are just 11 prep hitters picked in the top 10 picks who received 20 or more plate appearances in their second spring training. The trio from the 2019 draft class and 2018 draftee Jarred Kelenic have not been able to show yet what they can do in the majors. The same can be said for 2017 first-rounder Jo Adell. All five are ranked among the best prospects in the game.
The other six to top 20 plate appearances have all gone on to have notable or, in most cases, excellent major league careers. Cameron Maybin (1,153 major league games, 14 career WAR) is the least accomplished of the group. Harper (1,142 games, 33.7 WAR), Francisco Lindor (777 games, 28.7 WAR), Justin Upton (1,739 games, 33.9 WAR), Manny Machado (1,142 games, 39.8 WAR) and Javier Baez (724 games, 17.7 AR) are all long-time stars.
Those six have averaged 28 WAR, as measured by Baseball-Reference.com, per player, and most of them are still in the middle of their careers. Those six averaged reaching the majors after just 2.3 seasons in the minors.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are 20 players in the study who had fewer than 10 plate appearances in their second spring training. The best of those—Eric Hosmer (17.3 WAR) and Mike Moustakas (15.6 WAR) are the only two of those 18 to edge Maybin’s career.
And remember that Maybin had the worst career of the 20-plus plate appearance group. None of the other 18 have topped 10 career WAR. Four of those 18 retired without ever reaching the majors. Of the 14 in that group who did reach the majors, on average they needed 5.3 seasons in the minors before they made their MLB debut. As a group, they have averaged 3.4 career WAR.
There also is a small middle group—Clint Frazier, Austin Meadows and Albert Almora all had between 10 and 15 plate appearances in their second pro spring training. Those three have averaged 2.7 WAR with much of their careers still ahead of them.
The overall theme seems clear. Teams generally don’t give regular playing time in spring training to such a young draftee unless that prospect is showing he is quite special.
Expanding the survey to look at prep hitters in the top 30 picks of the 2004 to 2019 drafts finds much of the same. The significance of 20-plus plate appearances remains. Expanding the sample to prep hitters from the top 30 picks adds only five more players who cleared that mark. The three who reached that mark long enough ago to have MLB careers have had careers of significance—Addison Russell (615 games, 10.7 WAR), Jason Heyward (1,427 games, 38.4 WAR) and Andrew McCutchen (1,617 games, 44.6 WAR). Nolan Gorman (2018 first round) and Jordyn Adams (2018 first round) are the two other players who topped the 20 plate appearance mark. Those two have not had time yet to reach the majors.
The significance of fewer than 10 plate appearances does seem to wane for players drafted a little later in the first round.
A player drafted later in the first round may often need a little more time to develop before they are comfortable on a major league field, even in spring training. Aaron Hicks, Corey Seager and Neil Walker are among notable players who didn’t get even 10 plate appearances in their second full spring training. But the miss rate among those who don’t receive playing time in that second spring training remains quite high. CJ Henry, D.J. Davis, Josh Sale, Jake Skole and Brandon Snyder are among the picks who didn’t get any plate appearances in their second spring training.
The overall theme remains. The next top prep pick to play extensively in their second spring training who then fails to make an impact in the majors will be the first in a very long time.
It seems unlikely that Witt, Abrams or Greene will be the ones to tweak that trend.
What Opening Day Assignments Tell Us About Recent Draftees
We look at where all the first-round picks from 2019 and 2020 are assigned to start the 2021 season.
Spring Training Does Matter
Baseball America looked at high school position players picked in the top 10 picks from 2004-2019 to see how many plate appearances they saw in their second spring training as a pro.
|Extensive Playing Time|
|Moderate Playing Time|
|Little Or No Playing Time|