Sitting in front of his locker inside the Kansas City Royals’ spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona, Bobby Witt Jr. paused for a moment and looked around at the other guys in the room. It’s the spring of 2022, and the talented phenom has yet to make his major league debut.

“There is,” he said with a grin, “a lot of energy and buzz in the air.”

No doubt, Witt always felt like a perfect fit for the baseball club that calls Kansas City home. From the moment he was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, he’s embraced the challenge of getting the Royals back to what they once were.

It’s a challenge: The once-royal franchise – World Series titles in 1985 and 2015 – lost 104 games the year before Witt was drafted, then 103 games in that 2019 season.


Witt, the son of former major league pitcher Bobby Witt Sr., was the dream for the front office – a likable kid with a big smile and can-do, team-first attitude. The fan base loved his charisma, respected his work ethic and was intoxicated by his talent.

In Witt, the fans all saw their next George Brett, a star capable of leading the franchise to regular playoff appearances. Brett made his debut in 1973 and Kansas City reached the postseason seven times from 1976-85, back when just a few teams qualified and “wild cards” were only in Uno.

The Royals believed in Witt, but before they made a huge investment in him, they needed to see proof that his talent would translate into production on the major league level. On an objective level, that didn’t necessarily happen in his rookie season. The flashes were there, no doubt, but his first year was more about moments than consistency.

Witt Jr. Improves From Rookie Flash to MLB Elite

Witt, in his age-22 season, hit 20 home runs and stole 30 bases – both solid totals for any youngster. But he also had a sub-.300 on-base percentage (.294) and a 0.9 bWAR, and he showed the need for massive defensive improvement. He started 50 games at third base and 96 at shortstop, his natural position. By Outs Above Average, he checked in at minus-11, which ranked 259th of 267 qualifying big-leaguers.

Yeah, work to be done. The Royals knew it. Witt knew it.

And he made it happen in 2023. His sophomore season was so impressive, full of so much improvement, that the Royals pushed all their chips into the Witt pot this offseason.

In early February, the star player and the often-frugal front office agreed to a massive 11-year, $288.8 million contract extension, with a club option after the 11th year for three more seasons and $87 million. That’ll buy a lot of burnt ends and pulled pork sandwiches in Kansas City.

Witt’s improvement is worth digging into. He said on MLB Network right after the extension was announced that there were mentions of talks last spring, but the club approached him and his agent in September. What was happening in September? Witt was closing out a rather historic season, not just for a Royal, but any major league player.  

Witt finished with 30 home runs, 49 stolen bases, 11 triples and a 5.7 fWAR, and he was seventh in the AL MVP voting. Only four other players in major league history have ever matched his totals of at least 30 homers and 49 stolen bases in one season – Eric Davis (in 1987), Barry Bonds (1990), Mike Trout (2012) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (2023).

Yeah, that’s a good time for extension talks.  

In his rookie year, Witt had an RV+89, below the league average 100 in the raw value metric which examines how a hitter performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result. In 2023, his RV+ jumped to 140, ranking 16th among MLB players with at least 400 plate appearances.

Bryce Harper was decimal points ahead of Witt at 141 and Rafael Devers, Kyle Tucker and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. were just behind him at 137. That’s pretty good company. Among shortstops, only Corey Seager had a higher RV+ (179).

Of the top 16 on the ranking, Witt is the youngest of the group. For context, another young rising superstar adored by his fanbase, 23-year-old Julio Rodriguez, checked in at 121. It’s worth noting, J-Rod also has a contract extension – in August 2022, the Seattle Mariners gave him a 12-year, $209.3 million deal, with a couple option years at the end.

Now, you begin to understand why exactly the Royals were so eager to lock up Witt.

Witt’s Value Extends Beyond the Playing Field

There’s one other element to mention, and it has less to do with Witt’s productivity as a ballplayer: The Royals are angling for a new stadium. It’s probably not a coincidence that less than two weeks after the announcement of Witt’s extension, artist renderings for a new downtown stadium were released publicly. The team will need help from the voters and local politicians in the private/public partnership that’s expected to cost upwards of $2 billion.

It’s hard to ask for that type of support for a team that’s lost 203 games the past two seasons and finished last in the AL Central each time. But when the team has just signed everybody’s favorite potential superstar? That’s the kind of commitment from ownership fans can rally behind. At least, that’s the hope.


But back to Witt, the player. His improvements weren’t just year-over-year, but month-over-month last year. The more he played, the better he became. Potential turned into production.

  • Pre-MLB All-Star Game: 90 games, .257/.300/.442, 742 OPS, 14 HRs, 47 RBI, 27 SBs, 48 Runs
  • Post-MLB All-Star Game: 68 games, .301/.343/.563, .906 OPS, 16 HRs, 49 RBI, 22 SBs, 46 Runs

Pretty impressive stuff. And when Witt led, the Royals followed. Kansas City won 30 times in 71 games following the All-Star break, after winning just 26 times in 91 games before it. With 13 doubles, six triples and 16 home runs, Witt ranked seventh in MLB in total bases (157) after the break.

To do that playing ballgames in an extreme pitching-friendly park like Kauffman Stadium is ridiculous. Think about it this way: Kauffman has been around since 1973, and in 51 seasons, a grand total of four players have hit more than the 19 homers Witt popped out in Kansas City.
That’s it, four.

Back in that locker room conversation in spring 2022, Witt was asked about improvements. He said, almost as an “oh yeah, by the way,” that he needed to get stronger in the weight room.

“Obviously,” he said. Seems he checked that box, too.

‘Strike’ While Witt’s Hot – the Royals Have

Aside from the flashy numbers like homers and stolen bases, there’s another area of improvement that tells just as big of a story: A batter’s ability to recognize pitches, and understanding when and when not to swing.

Look at Acuña in 2023, and, yes, that 40/70 thing gets headlines, but what really made him dangerous was the way he cut down on his strikeout rate, from 25.3% in his first five seasons to just 11.4% in his MVP season. Mike Trout, same thing: In 2014, Trout struck out 101 more times than he walked. But by 2017, he’d improved to the point that he had more walks (94) than strikeouts (90).

In 2022, Witt’s strikeout percentage was 21.4. That’s not terrible, by any stretch, especially in today’s game, but in the second half of the season, it was just 13.5.

Oh, and remember that subpar defense his rookie season? That’s a thing of the past. From the opening day of spring training 2023, Witt was the starting shortstop, so there was no need to worry about playing third base. His relentless work led to spectacular results: 261 players qualified for the Outs Above Average leaderboard, and Witt’s +14 checked in at No. 12.

That’s an OAA jump from 259th to 12th. That’s a RV+ jump from 89 to 140. Huge gains in important numbers.

His salary got a big bump this offseason because the Kansas City Royals are betting on Bobby Witt Jr. helping the club improve another number that needs work: The one in the win column of the standings. 

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