On Tuesday in Arizona, Bobby Witt Jr. hit a home run in the Kansas City Royals spring training game. This is normal, in some ways — he crushed 33 across two levels in the minors last season. It’s also unfathomably exciting in that he’s the best prospect in baseball, likely to reach the majors early in 2022.
This home run didn’t inspire the normal top prospect hype, though. It inspired double takes.
Bobby with a blast! #RoyalsSTpic.twitter.com/ASANjFLBpK
— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) March 22, 2022
That, many fans thought, is Mike Trout’s swing. Upright stance, minimal movement except for a powerful twist of the torso, a subtle lurch with the back foot that springs into a step toward first base. And the follow-through, that’s the signature. Like Trout, Witt kept two hands locked on the bat. It waves up only to his shoulder and then recoils back to his waist almost instantly.
Side-by-side comparisons of Witt’s swing and Trout’s quickly started appearing on Twitter.
Oh. My. God. pic.twitter.com/79rE96hU9Q
— 준 Jun (@Royals_Jun) March 23, 2022
Trout’s distinct, compact uppercut has burned itself into the minds of baseball fans over the last 10 years, as he’s compiled an inner circle Hall of Fame career by the age of 30. It wasn’t foretold as an all-time great swing in 2012, though. After a rough cup of coffee in the majors in 2011, Trout entered that year as part of a clear triumvirate of top prospects set to join the majors.
There was Trout, Bryce Harper and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Moore. Chalk that up as a 2-for-3 day for the scouting community.
Now, it’s Witt who finds himself in a class of three elite prospects. This year, the argument centers around Witt, Baltimore Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman and Seattle Mariners slugger Julio Rodriguez. Rutschman went No. 1 overall to Witt’s No. 2 overall in the 2019 MLB draft. Most public prospect rankings still have Rutschman first and Witt second — though Baseball Prospectus moved Witt ahead this spring.
Either way, the younger Witt looks poised to beat the acclaimed catcher to the majors, and he’s expected to be the most impactful rookie playing in MLB this season. He’s the favorite for AL Rookie of the Year (+300 at BetMGM).
His startling rise was accentuated by the black box effect of the 2020 minor-league season, which was canceled due to the pandemic. Witt trained at the Royals’ alternate site complex, getting rave reviews for improving his contact and plate discipline skills. When the lights came back on and the cameras returned for 2021 — his first full season of professional baseball — Witt blasted off. He wrecked spring training pitchers to earn an eyebrow-raising Double-A assignment at age 20, then slashed .290/.361/.576 in a season split between there and Triple-A. Now, it’s just a question of whether his MLB debut is on opening day or shortly thereafter.
That rapid industry reevaluation also happened with Trout, but for a different reason. Coming from New Jersey, “a cold-weather state” in the amateur baseball world, Trout didn’t have the exposure to top pitching talent and top showcases that Witt and many other draft prospects do. His potential was apparent — he was a first-round pick, after all — but it wasn’t clear how much development time and growing pains would be required to unlock it. As it turns out, not much. Trout rampaged through the minors and forced his way to the majors at age 19, just two years after he was drafted.
In that 2012 season, Trout put up one of the best statistical campaigns of all time at age 20.
That shouldn’t be the expectation with Witt. But it won’t stop people from getting excited.
As prospect evaluation has gone more mainstream — at least in part because of Trout and Harper becoming instant stars — the microscope has only become more intense in zeroing in on future talent.
Before he was affiliated with any MLB organization, there was video of high-school-aged Witt — yes, he’s the son of the longtime major-league relief pitcher — blasting a home run all the way out of Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The worry with Witt was that his power-geared swing might make him susceptible to strikeouts. So far, his strikeout rates against even advanced pitching have been well within the bounds of successful hitters, and he has taken a steady diet of walks to boost his on-base percentage.
The Trout-like swing that sent a home run deep out to left-center on Tuesday is notable — it shows that he’s confident enough in his power to keep the rest of his body still as he drops his hands into a quick, powerful cut. But the uncanny replication of Trout’s rhythm might be more about the pitch location (inside, where Witt kept his hands tucked in as Trout does as a matter of habit) and the back foot’s quick transition into a step.
What can you actually expect from Witt this year? Well, a shortstop by trade, he has been starting at third base for the Royals in the spring — owing to a bevy of talented middle infield defenders in Kansas City. And at FanGraphs, Witt is projected to slug 24 homers with 21 steals. He’d be just the third rookie to join the 20-20 club since Trout (who bashed 30 homers and stole 49 bases in 2012).
And projections — unlike lofty Trout comparisons — are usually conservative estimates. Do with that what you will.
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