The KC Royals may see shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. as a leadoff hitter in the long term, but his production outside that role has been elite. The most immediate and impactful move so far this season has been manager Matt Quatraro's moving Witt down the lineup card.
Bobby Witt Jr. is looking like the star the KC Royals need once again.
Royals fans were fairly patient with Witt's lackluster production in the leadoff spot in 2023. After all, Witt only had 18 ABs in the leadoff spot during his rookie campaign. The results were poor even then, with a .111 OBP and a -36 wRC+. For reference, only outfielder Nate Eaton has a lower wRC+ than Witt did as a leadoff man last season. The tools are there for Witt, but the production was awful. Unfortunately, that and his struggles against the fastball carried over into the 2023 season for the sophomore player. His ability to get on base leading off improved but remained historically bad. Witt has a .250 OBP as the leadoff man, but that ranks as the fourth worst in the Wild Card era among players with at least 150 plate appearances, according to Stathead. That somehow made Witt a worse leadoff hitter than Royals shortstop Alciedes Escobar in 2016, his worst season as Kansas City's primary leadoff batter.
Witt's speed is his best tool this season, but not being able to reach base limited how much that speed impacted each game. All told, Witt has a .652 OPS, 43 strikeouts, and only 10 walks through 41 games at the top of the order. Something had to change, and Quatraro made that change after 33 straight games with Witt at the top. For the May 22 series opener against the Detroit Tigers, Witt batted sixth in the lineup, his lowest position in 2023. Quatraro had an obvious reason for moving Witt down, but struggles made the move a necessity.
“I was trying to find a way to balance out the righties and lefties to try to keep us not too exposed to the bullpen,” Quatraro said on May 22. “That’s really where that came from tonight. It’s nothing as far as, ‘Hey we are going with this.’ That’s not to say we won’t (continue it) but I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
Well, Quatraro has kept Witt out of the leadoff spot since, with great results. Before Saturday's game, Witt was posting an astounding 1.212 OPS .389 OBP, with two homers and six RBIs. The Royals are only 1-3 in those games, but Witt is back on a historic pace after floundering in the leadoff spot.
Witt's stats come from less than five games and a historic single-game performance, but they are still promising. The Royals have been transparent about this being an evaluation season for the team, and the front office has to like what Witt has shown them outside of the leadoff spot. Something is clearly different for Witt. Maybe it could be less pressure, favorable matchups, or just plain luck. No matter what it is, though, the timing is hard to ignore.
It is safe to say the Royals shortstop performs best outside of the leadoff spot. That was the case in 2022, and now it is in 2023. Now, how long will the Royals keep Witt out of that leadoff spot? Hopefully, for as long as he performs well anywhere else! The Royals have tried veteran journeyman Matt Duffy at the top, with adequate results. The .542 OPS is not impressive, but a .375 OBP is just what teams want from the leadoff hitter. Get on base, and let the lineup keep it moving.
The team has other options for that spot, especially infielder Maikel Garcia. He has been on a tear recently, posting a 1.59 OPS and a .517 OBP in the past seven games. The Royals jettisoning of veteran Hunter Dozier solidified Garcia's spot in Kansas City this season. He is the Royals' third-best prospect, according to MLB.com, and would be the best candidate for a leadoff hitter. His familial relationship with Escobar is ironic and shows how Garcia can emulate Escobar in that role. Nick Pratto and Nicky Lopez are other options the Royals could evaluate this season.
When Quatraro is making the lineup every day, leveraging matchups and situations is his foremost priority. But with his fluid approach to building a lineup, Witt's production outside that spot is undeniable. Witt is one of this team's core players for the foreseeable future. The team should not try to pigeonhole Witt into a role that does not leverage his talents to the fullest extent. It may not be in the Royals' plan, but Witt helps the team the most in the heart of the lineup.