There hasn’t been much positive to say about the Royals this season. They’ve posted a brutal 41-90 record to this point in the season that places them a whopping 26.5 games back even in the extraordinarily weak AL Central, saved from sporting the worst record in baseball only by an abysmal A’s team. To make matters worse, they’re one of just two organizations without a top-100 prospect on MLB.com’s most recent rankings, joined only by the Astros, an organization that not only was stripped of its first- and second-round picks during the 2020 and 2021 drafts but also had a prospect in the top 100 until they dealt him to the Mets to reacquire Justin Verlander.
With a terrible record and a barren farm system, it’s been a difficult year for fans in Kansas City. While they entered the 2023 campaign with an interesting core of young position players, most of them have battled either injury or ineffectiveness this year- first basemen Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto are currently on the injured list, while MJ Melendez hasn’t turned out to be the successor to Salvador Perez behind the plate many thought he could become. On the pitching side of things, last year’s impressive season from right-hander Brady Singer now appears to have been a mirage and an exciting start to the season from lefty Kris Bubic was cut short by Tommy John surgery after just three starts.
Despite all the disappointments of the 2023 campaign for the Royals, there’s been one undeniable bright spot for this organization in 2023. Bobby Witt Jr. was the club’s pick with the second overall selection in the 2019 draft and tore through the minor leagues, eventually becoming the top-rated prospect in all of baseball according to both MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus ahead of the 2022 campaign. He ultimately had a respectable first season in the major leagues, playing in 150 games while slashing .254/.294/.498, an offensive performance that clocked in just below league average with a 98 wRC+.
While he managed to swipe 30 bags in 37 attempts, brutal defense at both third base and shortstop combined with an uninspiring performance on offense saw the AL Rookie of the Year favorite coming into the season slide to fourth place when all was said and done, finishing behind not only fellow exciting youngsters Julio Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman, but a relative unknown in Steven Kwan of the club’s division rival Guardians. Unfair as it may be to expect top prospects to immediately reach their projected excellence upon reaching the major leagues, Witt’s debut season was disappointing relative to the sky-high expectations in place for the 22-year-old rookie.
Early in the 2023 campaign, it appeared Witt was on base for moderate improvements, but nothing particularly eye-catching. Through the first half of the season, Witt’s defense had improved substantially as he settled in as the Royals’ everyday shortstop and he was already on his way to beating 2022’s stolen base total with 23 bags swiped in 29 attempts, but his bat was lagging behind the rest of the package. In his first 351 trips to the plate this season, Witt slashed just .244/.288/.415 with a strikeout rate just over 20%, an eerily similar slash line to the one he had posted the previous season.
Things changed dramatically for Witt once the calendar flipped to July, however. In nine games prior to the All Star break, he slashed .382/.410/.782 in 40 trips to the plate. While his strikeout rate remained elevated during this stretch, at 22.5%, his six extra base hits in so few games were virtually unheard of for him to that point in his major league career. Witt stayed hot following the break, and ended the month with an impressive July slash line of .327/.346/.633.
As impressive as Witt’s July was, he’s been even better in August. In 100 plate appearances this month, Witt has slashed a sensational .359/.410/.707 with a strikeout rate of just 11%. He has more extra base hits (15) than strikeouts (11) this month, has gone 8-for-9 on the basepaths to bring his stolen base total this year to 37. Even his walk rate, which sits at just 5% for his career, has ticked up to 8% this month. In all, Witt has slashed .347/.378/.668 with 14 homers, 14 stolen bases, and a 15.1% strikeout rate since the beginning of July.
Of course, the past two months account for just 205 plate appearances, just over a third of his total trips to the plate this year. Even so, his season-long numbers are looking mighty impressive at this point. At the plate, he’s slashed .280/.321/.508 overall this season, with a 119 wRC+ that’s a substantial improvement over last year’s below-average mark. By season’s end, he appears to be a veritable lock for at least 30 home runs and 40 stolen bases. Those offensive numbers leave out his incredible glovework this season, as well. Witt’s +13 Outs Above Average in 2023 trail only Dansby Swanson among all major leaguers. While DRS isn’t quite as enamored with Witt’s glovework this season, giving him a figure of just -2, that’s still an incredible improvement from last season, when his -22 DRS was second-worst in the majors.
Between his recent offensive explosion and season-long excellence with the glove, Witt has accumulated 5.1 fWAR through 127 games this season. That phenomenal figure places him behind only Shohei Ohtani among AL players, ahead of players in the midst of phenomenal seasons such as Rodriguez, Marcus Semien, and Luis Robert Jr. By the numbers, Witt has been virtually the same player as Mets star Francisco Lindor in terms of value, with Lindor boasting slightly better offense (124 wRC+) in exchange for slightly weaker fielding and baserunning numbers.
Perhaps most exciting of all for Royals fans is that Witt, still just 23 years old, is under team control through the end of the 2027 season. With four more seasons of their budding superstar in a Royals uniform to look forward to, the Royals still have several years to build a contender around their budding superstar and make a run at their first playoff appearance since winning the World Series in 2015 before his team control runs out and he has the option to depart in free agency.
Kansas City’s odds are particularly good considering the weak division they play in; after all, the Twins have a commanding lead for the AL Central crown this year despite a mediocre 67-63 record, and the division’s biggest spenders in the White Sox are clearly trending in the wrong direction at the moment. Despite the 2023 team’s brutal record and a farm system without clear impact talent on the way, all is not lost for the Royals going forward, and their franchise shortstop is perhaps the primary reason why.