Only 'scratching the surface,' best is yet to come for Witt in Royals blue

February 5th, 2024

KANSAS CITY – Bobby Witt Jr. is no stranger to pressure. His dad, Bobby Witt, was a 16-year Major League pitcher, and from the time “Junior” learned how to walk, he had a bat in his hand with a dream of playing baseball.

An incredible athlete, hype followed Witt through middle and high school, surrounded him when the Royals selected him No. 2 overall in the 2019 Draft and only picked up steam when he was named baseball’s No. 1 prospect ahead of his MLB debut in 2022.

It has not relinquished, in large part because he’s shown his talent is real, and it leveled up on Monday, when Witt signed the largest contract in Royals franchise history. It’s a deal worth $288.7 million over 11 guaranteed years with the possibility of going to $377.7 million over 14 years. To put that in perspective, the four largest contracts in Royals history were handed out to Salvador Perez ($82 million), Alex Gordon ($72 million), Ian Kennedy ($70 million) and Gil Meche ($55 million).

The value of those four combined ($279 million) is less than Witt’s guaranteed contract.

Certainly, the pressure is on Witt to perform; small-market teams rarely, if ever, hand out contracts of this magnitude, especially this early in a player’s career. Locking up Witt for the foreseeable future sends a message that the Royals want to firmly put last season’s 106 losses behind them and build a winner that is not afraid to spend money – with Witt as the centerpiece.

To that, Witt is likely saying: Bring it on. He enjoys the spotlight and big moments the game offers.

“No doubt,” Witt said this past weekend at Royals Rally. “It makes you go out there, and you have to prove something. That’s what you work for. That’s what you do each and every day when you’re in the offseason, when you’re up late at night looking at video, whatever it is. That’s why you play this game.”

Witt has spent this offseason honing his craft, looking to get stronger in every aspect of his game ahead of an important 2024 season. He’s looking to build off a historic season after hitting 30 homers and stealing 49 bases while slashing .276/.319/.495 with 96 RBIs and a Major League-leading 11 triples.

The 23-year-old matured defensively and became an all-around better player whose sights are still set on improving.

“Just getting stronger as a whole,” Witt said. “From bottom up, trying to be as physical as possible going into another year. Knowing what my body needs and what I need to do to get right and get ready. Little things, trying to make sure I’m ready for a good routine in the offseason. Not only working on getting strong but also working on mental performance.”

Witt lives for the high-pressure moments, but learning to use that to his advantage took some time. There were times his rookie season and last year when he wanted to turn the Royals’ misfortunes around on his own, and he ended up struggling.

Once he got back to being himself – “not being as hard on myself,” he says – things clicked. It’s why he had such a monster second half of the season, when he posted a .906 OPS while slashing his strikeout rate from 20.5% in the first half to 13.5% in the second.

“I went into last year kind of the same as my rookie year – I’m supposed to be this guy, No. 1 prospect on paper and everything,” Witt said. “I come in and try to put the whole team on me. Once I realized, ‘Just go out there and worry about today, don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next day,’ and just was myself, I think the second half of the season, it clicked. Went out there and tried to be as prepared as possible going into each and every day. Not worried about what’s going to happen tomorrow, not worrying about what happened May 1.”

That mental performance has been a point of focus for Witt this offseason. It’s another skill that puts him above the rest of the field. He’s 23 years old and already signed a mega-extension. But Witt won’t be stopping now, and neither will the Royals.

“I think he’s just scratching the surface on what he’s going to do as a player,” general manager J.J. Picollo said on Saturday. “As well as he played the back-half of the year, the last four months, I think we’re just starting to see what he could potentially do. It wouldn’t be shocking if he’s a 50-50 guy, wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up being a .320 hitter. He’s going to continue to get better as a hitter with pitch recognition and swing decisions, his defense is going to continue to get better. The sky’s the limit for him, and I think everybody on our team recognizes it.

“But also talking to the [new] guys that we have on our club now, they ask questions about Bobby. There’s a little bit of an aura factor that Bobby has that other players see. And we just want to keep surrounding him with good players so he doesn’t put too much on himself.”