KANSAS CITY -- Tyler Tolbert remembers the first time he met George Brett, hearing from the Hall of Famer in Rookie ball shortly after Tolbert was selected in the 13th round of the 2019 Draft. But the memory that stands out the most with Brett came this past Spring Training, after Tolbert had an unforgettable first Cactus League game.
Tolbert was supposed to come in as a defensive replacement at shortstop on Feb. 25, but after Diego Hernandez suffered a shoulder injury, Tolbert, an inexperienced outfielder at that point, was called on to play center field. He followed with two spectacular catches and a three-run homer.
Walking off the field and through the tunnel back to the clubhouse later, Tolbert found himself next to Brett.
“He said a bunch of really nice things and was joking around with me,” Tolbert said Friday. “It was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s when our relationship really started building. It was so cool. I love George.”
Now Tolbert has been recognized with the award named after the greatest Royal of all time.
Tolbert, 25, was named the George Brett Hitter of the Year in the Royals organization this year after posting a .755 OPS across 126 games in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Tolbert was one of seven award recipients to be honored on Futures Night on Friday at Kauffman Stadium.
“It’s an honor to get the award named after him,” Tolbert said. “... It’s [been] a whirlwind. I’ve tried to reflect these last two weeks. It started to hit me a little bit when I got closer to [Friday]. It’s been a great year. Lots of memories. And a lot of baseball. I need a little rest. But I’ll be ready to go for Spring Training.”
Tolbert hasn’t taken a break from baseball since before the 2022 season. Last offseason, after playing 116 games for High-A Quad Cities and all but two of them at shortstop, Tolbert went to Australia to play winter ball for Brisbane. The Royals encouraged him to start learning center field to increase his opportunities.
He responded by winning the team’s and league’s Defensive Player of the Year honors.
This season, Tolbert played 71 games at shortstop, 33 in center, 15 in right and two in left field.
“Way, way, way more confident,” Tolbert said about playing in center. “Last year, I think I was going off pure athleticism. Like in a football sense, ‘Just go be an athlete.’ Now, I am understanding where to throw the ball, going through situations.”
The experience in Australia and the momentum from big league Spring Training catapulted Tolbert into 2023. He slashed .276/.336/.419 with a career-high 24 doubles, a record-tying 10 triples and a career-high 10 homers -- four more than his previous high in ‘21. A year after going 60-for-60 in stolen base attempts, Tolbert stole 50 this season and has gone 193-for-204 (94.6%) on stolen base attempts in his career.
“The season he had in ‘22, there were clear things he needed to work on,” Royals director of player development Mitch Maier said. “He would be the first to tell you that there were things he needed to do better offensively. And he took advantage of Australia, came to Major League camp riding that momentum, then stepped on the field with Major League players after making adjustments and knowing you’re better.
“Then he goes out there and starts playing the way he did, I think that goes a long way to continue into the season. He’s made some minor tweaks, swing-change type things that he’s constantly evolved throughout the year.”
This offseason, Tolbert will finally get some rest before getting back in the cage and in the weight room. He’d like to tap into more power -- without losing the speed or athleticism that defines who he is -- because his nutrition and lifting regimen worked well this year.
“I learned a lot about myself, what my approach needs to be and what my swing is like,” Tolbert said. “I think the main thing was just confidence. I had some success [in the spring] with great players who play at the highest level. It gave me the confidence of saying, ‘It’s close.’ And just continue to do what I needed to do. You never know when your time is coming.”