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From Witt To Witt

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While Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.'s pro future is at shortstop, he has some of his father's skills on the mound. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

In some form or fashion, Bobby Witt Jr. will leave a mark on the game, just like his father did before him.

But long before the toolsy shortstop from Texas was a household name among the national scouting community, the son of 16-year major league veteran Bobby Witt left another mark—one that’s still visible in the Witt household to this day.

“I remember when he was younger, he always had a bat in his hand,” Witt Sr. said. “He was always trying to hit something. Whether it was furniture or whatever, it didn’t matter. I remember one day he was swinging in the living room and he had a wood bat and I said, ‘Hey take it easy.’

“And he was little, it was way too big a bat for him. And he swung it and let go of it and it just stuck in the wall. And we’re just sitting there laughing. We still have the hole, we haven’t done anything to fix it yet.”

While Witt Jr. might have bitten off a bit more than he could chew as a toddler, he eventually grew up and learned how to handle bigger bats just fine. He also learned how to handle playing with older and—presumably—better competition.

A year ago, Witt Jr. was one of the few class of 2019 players invited to USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars, where he competed with the likes of 2018 first-round picks Jarred Kelenic (sixth overall), Triston Casas (26th) and his double-play partner at the time, Brice Turang (21st). Not only did he hold his own, he stood out from the pack.

“I think it’s kind of when the light went off last year,” said Witt Sr., who is now an agent with Octagon. “And then you’re talking to certain scouts and (they say) he’s a pretty good player. And my brother Doug is actually a scout with Toronto. He’s been in the business for about 20 years, so he knows a lot of the guys who’ve gotten to see him as well.

“When they start talking about him and comparing him to certain guys, and they saw what he did against the other kids, you can sit there and go, ‘You know he’s doing OK now.’ He wasn’t the top guy (at TOS) by any means, but he was doing OK with that group. Maybe he’s going to have a chance.”

Roughly one year later, Witt Jr. is back at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex. 

While a number of underclassmen were looking to make the 18U National Team and win the United States’ eighth straight gold medal, the shortstop from Colleyville (Texas) High is no longer an underclassman. After missing out on the final roster in 2017 because of injury, Witt Jr. is coming off a junior campaign in which he hit .466 with 10 home runs, five triples and 13 doubles. 

Witt Jr. was the only underclassmen selected as a Baseball America first-team All-America and he now enters the 2019 draft cycle as the No. 1 high school player in the class.

While scouts lament the overall strength of the 2019 class in the early stages, compared with a deep 2018 high school crop, there is one consistent name routinely brought up—unprompted—in conversations about this year’s class. 

“I think this year Bobby Witt is the big-time name,” said one National League scout.

After being an interesting side attraction to the class of 2018 players, Witt Jr. is now the main event. It’s apparent from the way evaluators zone in when the 6-foot, 180-pound righthanded hitter steps in the batter’s box, or from the way opposing pitchers frequently touch their peak velocities at the same time, and often pitch backwards or nibble around the strike zone. Perhaps it’s most obvious when talking with Witt Jr. himself, or watching him interact with players on the field.

Shy and reserved a year ago, the Oklahoma commit (just like his father) is now looked at as a leader on the field and takes on that role with a seemingly more outgoing personality. 

“I really try to lead more by example,” Witt Jr. said. “And vocally, I’m just trying to tell the guys who are asking questions the way we’ve done it in the past and what can we do (to succeed at TOS). I’m just telling them how to go through things, because these are long days. You have to get your body right to make sure you get the most rest and eat as well as you can all the time.”

Witt Jr. said he’s added around 10 pounds of muscle since last summer. He focused on improving his nutrition and getting stronger (he’s got plus raw power already) and faster (he’s a double-plus runner). 

“Really, I worked on everything this offseason,” he said. “I tried to just get better every day at anything I did. Whether it was in the cages (or) in school, just whatever. Just trying to get my mind right . . . trying to get those five tools. I want to get better at every one of them every day. 

“Like Mike Trout says, he comes into each season trying to get better, but he’s the best one playing right now.”

Witt Jr. also looks up to former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and current Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, but the major league player who has had the biggest impact on Witt Jr. is his father.

“He’s just always pushing me,” Witt Jr. said. “He’s always going to have something when I go (talk to him after games).”

The elder Witt was a durable righthander. He was a wild fireballer when the Rangers drafted him with the third pick in the 1985 draft out of Oklahoma. He was a regular in the Rangers’ rotation the next year. While he never played shortstop and logged just 64 professional at-bats, Witt has a wealth of major league knowledge—and the knowledge of former teammates—to draw from, and he has tried to impart as much of that as possible on his son. 

Most of the shared knowledge involves honing a sixth tool that isn’t included in the “five-tool player” cliché. Something beyond hitting for average, hitting for power, running, throwing and fielding. 

The something is mental toughness.

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“They say ‘five-tool player,’ but I just try to have maybe six tools,” Witt Jr. said. “(I want to) have that mindset in the way I go out and play the game.”

The mental side of baseball is something that both the Witts appreciate and point to as crucial to success at the major league level, assuming Witt Jr. gets there on day.

“I think just going out there and understanding the game is key,” Witt Sr. said. “Realizing that, ‘Hey, this is a game of failure.’ The best in the world, as a hitter, are 30 percent. Any other job, that’s not going to get it done. I think you have to realize, you’re going to have days—in high school baseball he’s hitting .400 every year—and that’s not going to happen (at higher levels), man. 

“You’re going to have not just days of not getting hits, but weeks of not getting hits. Literally weeks of not getting hits. You’ve just got to be mentally prepared to go out there and understand that it’s going to be OK the next day and you can bounce back.”

Just a day before Witt Sr. said that, his son stood on the field at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex after a game in which he went hitless in three at-bats. Unfazed, Witt Jr. signed a few baseballs for kids clamoring for his autograph and then spoke about how his next goal was showing up at the field the next day at 7:40 a.m. 

“I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” Witt Jr. said. “I just have to show up here and do my thing. I just went 0-for-3. (My dad) is probably going to try to critique me on something, but he’s always pushed me—and I like that.

“He’s done what I want to do eventually, so hopefully that will help me. He’ll give me those words and the encouragement to do everything that I can to keep going.”

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