Don't look now, but Witt Jr.'s breakout a long time coming

August 7th, 2023

's rise to stardom has been happening for months, you just didn't know it. Now you do.

Now you can see it. The 23-year-old is batting .336 and slugging .647 with a 1.009 OPS since the start of July. All of a sudden, Witt's got 20 homers and 32 steals -- he's the first player in AL/NL history to go 20-30 in each of his first two seasons -- and is one of the top defensive shortstops in the league. He's starting to do the things a true five-tool superstar would do.

"It's just me playing the game," Witt said. "It's just knowing what I can do. It's always been there."

But the bat took a while to catch up to the rest of what he was doing. Witt's been an elite basestealer since he arrived in the big leagues; his defensive emergence has been a big storyline from the beginning of the year.

Yet at the end of June, Witt was batting .244 and slugging .415 with a .702 OPS. And he's not supposed to be a speed-and-defense specialist. Witt's supposed to be like , but with even more power.

Then he turned it on. Here are the signs that this hot streak was coming all along.

Witt ranks in the 95th percentile of MLB in both expected batting average and expected slugging percentage, Statcast's quality-of-contact versions of traditional BA and SLG.

Hitters in 95th+ percentile of MLB in xBA and xSLG

  • Ronald Acuña Jr. -- 100th in xBA / 99th in xSLG
  • Corey Seager -- 100th in xBA / 99th in xSLG
  • Freddie Freeman -- 99th in xBA / 98th in xSLG
  • Aaron Judge -- 98th in xBA / 100th in xSLG
  • Shohei Ohtani -- 98th in xBA / 100th in xSLG
  • Bobby Witt Jr. -- 95th in xBA / 95th in xSLG

Among hitters with 400-plus plate appearances, Witt's .292 xBA ranks 11th, and look at the only hitters in front of him: Acuña, Freeman, Bo Bichette, Luis Arraez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ohtani, Kyle Tucker, Christian Yelich, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Yandy Díaz.

In that same group, Witt's .507 xSLG ranks eighth. The only hitters ahead of him there are Ohtani, Acuña, Freeman, Matt Olson, Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers and Adolis García.

Witt has been among the league leaders in xBA and xSLG for a while now. But only now are his actual numbers coming around.

Witt through June: 

  • .284 xBA (+40 points from .244 actual BA)
  • .507 xSLG (+92 points from .415 actual SLG)

Witt since July: 

  • .313 xBA (-23 points from .336 actual BA)
  • .617 xSLG (-30 points from .647 actual SLG)

Witt' season stats now: 

  • .292 xBA (+24 points from .268 actual BA)
  • .536 xSLG (+59 points from .477 actual SLG)

The gap is narrowing. Witt's bad luck from earlier in the season is starting to even out. 

When his stats lagged behind, Witt echoed the same refrain hitters tend to do when they don't get the breaks of the game: That's baseball.

"You just put together good at-bats," he said, "and then hope the baseball gods are on your side."

But why did it take so long? When Witt's numbers were down over the first few months of the season, he was just hitting into a lot of hard outs.

At the end of June, Witt had 67 hard-hit outs (balls he hit 95 mph or harder), tied for fifth-most of any hitter. He had 13 barreled outs -- barrels are balls hit with both ideal exit velocity and ideal launch angle -- also tied for fifth-most of any hitter.

Hard-hit balls are supposed to be hits. Barrels are supposed to be extra-base hits and homers. Witt was getting way too little out of great contact.

  • Through June, Witt was one of only 46 MLB hitters with at least 100 hard-hit balls. But 58% of his hard-hit balls turned into outs, fifth-most out of that group.
  • Through June, Witt was one of only 39 MLB hitters with at least 25 barrels. But 46% of those barrels turned into outs, third-most out of that group.

Witt's batting average on those hard-hit balls was only .417. You might think that's high, but it's not, not for hard-hit balls. The league batting average on hard contact is .504.

Witt's batting average on his barrels was only .536, and his slugging percentage on those barrels was "only" 1.893. Again, those numbers seem like they're good, but they're not. The league batting average on barrels is .735, and the league slugging on barrels is 2.460.

"Our hitting coaches kind of help us with that," Witt said. "Showing us those numbers sometimes and saying, 'Hey, you're hitting it well, just keep going, keep going.'"

The main culprit for Witt was center field. A big chunk of Witt's hard-hit outs early on -- and all of his barreled outs -- were hit to the deepest part of the ballpark. It's hard to fault Witt for driving the ball to the middle of the field -- he has a nice, even spray chart, and that should be the mark of a good hitter, not a bad one.

Only a part of Witt's lost power production can be attributed to the Royals' Kauffman Stadium, one of the least home run-friendly parks in baseball. His hard-hit outs and barreled outs were split fairly evenly between at home and on the road, and what Kauffman costs hitters in homers, it makes up for in the other base hits -- especially triples, which Witt leads the Majors in.

"Some of the balls you hit well, you don't know if they're gonna get out or get down," Witt said. "But there is a lot of grass out there, so I feel like there's more hits out there at Kauffman. But then you come to Yankee Stadium, you see some of the balls that are going out, and you're like, 'Oh wow, that could've been a flyout somewhere else.' But you've just got to play where you're at."

And Witt does have the power to go deep to any part of the park. Look at his homer to dead center against the Mets this past week. He also has the quick hands to turn on the ball and take advantage of the pull field. That's what he did on his ridiculous walk-off grand slam the week before.

He's just now getting the results he deserves. Witt ranks in the top 20 in MLB in hard-hit balls (156) and in the top 15 in barrels (42) this season. Someone ripping the ball around like that should have All-Star numbers.

Finally his hard-hit balls are falling: Witt's batting .610 on hard contact since the start of July. His barrels are clearing the outfield: Witt's batting .786 and slugging 2.857 on his barreled balls since July.

Really, Witt has the bat talent to do anything. It's good to see that bat producing the contact and power numbers it should be.