DES MOINES, Iowa — The Omaha Storm Chasers were trying to hold on to a 10-5 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning of their Sept. 29 game when Iowa Cubs catcher Erick Castillo stepped to the plate with runners on second and third and two outs. Castillo, who swung at an 0-1 offering from Omaha pitcher Jose Cuas, smacked a blooper that was headed toward shallow left field.
“I thought it was two runs,” Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said.
Bobby Witt Jr. had different thoughts, though.
As the ball hung in the air, the Omaha shortstop began what seemed like an unlikely chase after it. Witt sprinted from his spot at shortstop to the the left field line. Just as the ball looked like it was headed for the Principal Park outfield grass, Witt leaped into the air and a made an over-the-shoulder catch as he was fully extended. Witt, who slid across the grass, held onto the ball for the final out of the inning.
“I was just trying to go out there and make a play, help the team and have that comfortable five-run lead and I happened to go out there and laid out and caught out,” Witt said.
The threat was over. The Storm Chasers held on to win the game 10-5.
And it was just another moment in the growing legend of Bobby Witt Jr. Plays like that one, which was featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” as a top-10 play, have become the norm for the mega-prospect who is this year’s USA TODAY Minor League Player of the Year. The award is based on voting from our panel of writers and editors as well as a Twitter poll of readers.
“It’s hard not to be impressed with what he’s done,” said Kansas City Royals senior vice president/general manager J.J. Picollo. This summer, Witt’s first full season of professional baseball, he did it all — hitting .290 with 35 doubles, 33 home runs, 97 RBI, 29 stolen bases and a .936 OPS between Classes AA and AAA.
Picollo knew a big season could be in store for Witt. The second overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, Witt impressed Picollo during his daily performances at the organization’s alternate site in 2020. Witt had appeared in just 37 games at rookie ball during his first season but was facing some of the organization’s top young arms — Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic — at the club’s alternate site.
Everyone the club threw at him — Class AA, Class AAA or even big league pitchers sent down — had trouble with Witt. He looked like a seasoned pro already by putting together great at-bats. He would work the counts deep and foul off tough pitches. Picollo was particularly impressed with how Witt would go the other way when he needed to with pitches and took advantage of the rare mistakes thrown his way, crushing fastballs over the plate.
“That gave us a good indication that he might be a little closer than we though he was,” Picollo said.
Witt showed Picollo he was correct with a strong performance during his first test at Class AA in 2021. In 61 games with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Witt tallied a slash line of .295/.369/.570. Also, Witt smacked 16 homers, ripped 11 doubles and swiped 14 bases.
But the numbers told just part of the story.
Naturals manager Scott Thorman noticed Witt making in-game adjustments. A pitcher would get him out one way in Witt’s first at-bat. By the second at-bat, Witt had already made the necessary changes.
It’s something some players never learn to do, Thorman said. Witt’s all-around game was impressive as well. Thorman, who had to do game reports on his players, was constantly highlighting something Witt did, either taking an extra base or delivering a perfect relay throw.
“He turned 21 this summer and some of the things he did on the baseball field make grown men blush,” Thorman said.
Past winners(there was no minor league season in 2020):
Witt earned a promotion to Class AAA Omaha on July 20. Picollo remembers one of the reports explaining how Witt was trying to steal third with a left-handed shift on. When the hitter bounced a ball to the second baseman, Witt kept running and scored all the way from second on the groundout.
Witt didn’t miss a beat in Class AAA. During his 62-game stint with Omaha, Witt hit .285 with 24 doubles, 17 homers and 15 stolen bases.
“Every single ground ball he puts pressure on the defense because he doesn’t take a play off,” Iowa manager Marty Pevey said.
Then there’s the defense. Witt’s highlight reel catch was one of many he made this season. Even though Poldberg managed him for half the season, he’s convinced Witt ranks among the best defensive players he’s had in the minors. That alumni list includes Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers.
“I’ve got to put him at the top of that group,” Poldberg said.
‘Plays like he owes the game’
As Witt strolls to the plate for his first at-bat in the final game of the year, his father, also named Bobby, sits in the stands and watches. Just two nights earlier, the two were in Kansas City when the Royals named Bobby Witt Jr. as the club’s George Brett Hitter of the Year, awarded to the organization’s top minor league position player. The day after Witt received the award on the field at Kauffman Stadium, the two got in a truck and headed a few hours to Des Moines for the final two games of the season.
There was a lot still on the line for Witt to accomplish. He needed one more stolen base to reach 30 for the season and join the prestigious and rare 30-30 club (30 stolen bases and 30 home runs). Witt nearly accomplished it earlier in the series. He swiped second in Omaha’s game in Iowa on Sept. 30. But the game was canceled after it started raining in Iowa. Witt’s stolen base didn’t count because the two teams hadn’t completed five innings.
“I don’t think he’s really thinking about getting to do that,” his father said before Witt flied out to center. “He’s going to keep playing the way he plays.”
For Witt, that’s playing hard — and playing hard all the time. His father, who played 16 years in the majors as a right-handed pitcher, used to hit him grounders next to their house. Bobby Witt Jr. would beg his dad to keep going, even as a 7-year-old.
When he reached high school, the younger Witt would practice, come home for lunch and then go back to the school to hit. He hit so much his high school coach gave him a key card so he could come in and use the cages on his own. The intense work ethic hasn’t changed. It’s got so intense, Thorman had to continually try to slow Witt, who always wanted more grounders.
Thorman thought Witt needed to learn how to pace himself. Turns out, this was Witt’s pace.
He’s motivated by the high hopes Royals fans have for him and the giant expectations prognosticators have placed on him.
“I look at him as a future All-Star in the big leagues,” Poldberg said.
It all just adds fuel to Witt’s fire. Witt doesn’t go out of his way to read the reports on him or learn about the awards he’s won. But he also doesn’t try to avoid them. The way he looks at it, they all just push him. He wants to become the player people expect him to become.
“This stuff is just motivation,” Witt said.
Witt’s only struggles this season came during the first series of the season, when he went 4-for-20 with seven strikeouts. His dad, who chats with him after every game, will often give him hitting tips or send him clips of swings if he notices something wrong. At the start of the season, he thought his son was pressing too hard.
“‘Hey man, you’re trying too hard,’” Witt Sr. said of his message to his son.
Those struggles seem like such a long time ago now. Beyond his stats, what caught the attention of both his minor league managers was the maturity he showed.
Poldberg even shook both of Witt’s parents hands when he met them.
“His dad was in the big leagues so he grew up where usually a lot of those guy think the game owes them,” Poldberg said. “Well, he plays like he owes the game and it’s just such a breath of fresh air.”
Witt’s father already has a list of off-season improvement to make.
Again, this is only the beginning for Bobby Witt Jr.
There’s much more to accomplish, and he’s in a hurry to get started.
“Obviously the ultimate goal was to make it to the big leagues,” Witt Jr. said. “So, I’ve just got to keep putting the work and try to get there.”
The USA TODAY Sports’ Minor League Player of the Year was selected through voting on a pool of finalists by USA TODAY Sports writers and editors plus a fan poll we conducted on Twitter. Each staffer’s vote counted for one point. The winner of our poll (MJ Melendez) received two.
Player, team –points
Royals SS Bobby Witt Jr. – 4
Royals C MJ Melendez – 2
Orioles RHP Grayson Rodriguez – 1
Tigers OF Riley Greene – 0