Witt becomes first Royal in 30-30 club: 'No one like him'

September 30th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- Any time  stepped to the plate over the past couple of weeks, anticipation hung over the Royals’ dugout railing.

Witt wanted this moment, but his teammates perhaps wanted it more. Brady Singer even texted Witt on Thursday with a request to wait to make history until the Royals were at home for the final series of the season. Then the injured Singer could witness it in person.

On Friday, the wish came true.

With one strong swing in the seventh inning against Yankees reliever Keynan Middleton, Witt launched himself into Kansas City’s record books with his 30th homer of the season, making him the first Royal ever to record a 30-homer, 30-stolen base season.

Fifty-four seasons of Royals baseball, and it was the 23-year-old emerging superstar to do what no one else had ever done on an already historic night for the Royals during their 12-5 win over the Yankees at Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City saw a franchise-record 10 batters reach base safely before an out was recorded in its nine-run first inning.

“I’ve never seen anybody like him,” said Royals captain Salvador Perez, a former World Series MVP who is the sole remaining member of the last Kansas City core. “Thirteen years in Kansas City. No one like him. And I was around good players. [Eric] Hosmer. [Mike] Moustakas. Alcides Escobar. But to do what Bobby does -- hit, throw, steal bases, the way he plays. Seriously. He is the best I have ever seen here. 

“And I thank God that I am here to see it, to enjoy the moment, and to be around him. I can tell my kids in 20 years that I played with Bobby Witt Jr.”

Witt became the first Royal with a 30-30 season, but his 49 steals this season make him just the fifth player in Major League history to have 30-plus homers and 49 or more stolen bases in a season, joining Eric Davis (1987), Barry Bonds (‘90), Mike Trout (‘12) and Ronald Acuña Jr. this year.

“Pretty special,” Witt said. “It was great. First inning was fun to get things going. Nine-run lead, I haven’t seen that ever really. … Special anytime you get to be the first.”

Witt is just the second player in Major League history with 30 home runs and 49 steals at age 23 or younger, joining Trout in 2012, who did it at age 20.

The closest call for a Royal to join the 30-30 club actually did achieve the feat, but he was traded midseason -- Carlos Beltrán in 2004, when he was traded from the Royals to the Astros. He came close in ‘02 as a Royal, when he hit 29 homers and stole 35 bases.

A place in team history is only the beginning of what the Royals and Witt foresee for the budding superstar. Kansas City drafted Witt with the No. 2 overall pick in 2019 and pegged him as the face of the franchise when he was in Rookie ball. He debuted as a 21-year-old and had an up-and-down year that saw flashes of his potential.

A year later, that potential is becoming reality.

This year has undoubtedly been Witt’s breakout season – and Witt has been one of the hottest hitters in the second half, which fueled the 30-40 campaign. He entered Friday slashing .273/.315/.487 overall in 2023 with a 5.5 fWAR, which is tied for 11th among MLB position players this year.

A slow start led to questions surrounding Witt, as he posted a .677 OPS, a 22.3 percent strikeout rate and a 78 wRC+ from Opening Day to May 21. But when the Royals opened a series against the Tigers that week, something clicked for Witt. Since May 23, Witt had an .866 OPS entering Friday. His strikeout rate has dipped to 15.7 percent, and his wRC+ has increased to 129.

In the second half alone, Witt has a .901 OPS with 16 homers.

“He didn’t start out the year well,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “Compound that with the fact that we were losing all the time, the way he had dug himself [in] and helped elevate the team in the middle of the season – he’s a cornerstone player.”

Add Witt’s offense to his speed and his defense, and the tools start to add up. A year after he was worth -11 Outs Above Average and committed 19 errors between shortstop and third base, the Royals committed to Witt as their everyday shortstop. He has responded with 13 OAA at the position.

As Witt rounded the bases Friday night, touched home and embraced Perez before entering an ecstatic dugout, joyous relief was palpable.

“Everybody was waiting for that moment,” Perez said.

So was Witt, who crushed nine homers in August but just two in September before Friday’s milestone. There were times, he said, when he took a selfish at-bat. But what finally got him to his moment was the mindset he relied on to turn his season around back in May. 

It’s the mindset he hopes his teammates embrace moving into 2024 after finishing a disappointing season of 105 losses with two games to go.

“Once you come to the realization that you’re a big leaguer, you’re supposed to be here, you’ve got to prepare and come to each day not worrying about what happened in the past,” Witt said. “Not worry about what’s happening in the future. Not worry about what the numbers are saying on the scoreboard. And just try to go out there and win the ballgame, help the team. That’s whenever I feel like things just take off. …

“If we can get all the guys to buy into that, we can try to make a winning culture around here. And I think things will start to change.”