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Friday, June 15, 2018

Witt Jr. wears No. 1 quite well

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Bobby Witt Jr. (Perfect Game)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Right about one year ago this week, top Texas high school class of 2019 prospect Bobby Witt Jr. arrived at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., looking forward to performing at the 2017 Perfect Game Junior National Showcase.

There was not then, nor is there now, anything about Witt Jr.’s demeanor, attitude or the way that he carries himself that would have led an outside observer to think that the young man had arrived at the Jr. National as the No. 1-ranked national prospect in the class of 2019.

He’s as humble and unassuming as a warm and breezy Texas spring day, and he doesn’t crave any extra attention. The son of former big-league pitcher Bobby Witt Sr., Witt Jr. only wants to be around his teammates and play the game he loves at the highest level he’s capable of.

“I really enjoy just watching him play and how he’s gone out there and performed,” Witt Sr. said a year ago. “With (the No. 1 ranking) there’s been a lot of attention but I think he’s handled it tremendously. The biggest thing for me is that he loves to play this game … (and) if there’s a game going on, he wants to be playing in it.”

Fast-forward a year and switch the venue from jetBlue Park to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. That is where Witt Jr. has pitched his tent the last two days, while performing at this year’s PG National Showcase.

There have been some physical changes in the past year – Witt Jr. is carrying 185-pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame this year as opposed to 180 a year ago – and he’s even more mature and more driven then he was in 2017. But one thing hasn’t changed: he’s still the No. 1-ranked national prospect in his class.

“I feel like I use it more for motivation than anything because there’s a target on me,” Witt Jr. told PG Friday morning when asked about carrying the weight of that No. 1 ranking. “I want to keep that spot and just maintain it, and just keep getting better and better and do my thing. I always feel like I have to keep working on everything, every part of my game.”

A primary shortstop who has done some pitching, Witt Jr. can reflect on the last 12 months with no regrets and every reason to be excited about the future. He’s the No. 1-ranked prospect on a PG National Showcase roster that includes more than 140 of the top 150 2019s, and he’s thrilled to have been invited to the party.

“It’s awesome being down here. Tropicana Field is great along with everything that Perfect Game does,” Witt Jr. said. “It’s really a blessing and it’s amazing competing against the best talent in the country. Coming out here and seeing plus-arms, and all those guys running yesterday and seeing those dudes just flying.”

There is no disputing that. Five prospects from the early reporting groups ran a sub 6-30-second 60-yard dash, led by Jerrion Ealy’s event record of 6.13-seconds. Four others ran 6.40-seconds or better, with Witt Jr. turning in that 6.40 effort.

He also threw 92 mph across the infield, an effort that was tied for third-best among the early groups. Rece Hinds’ 98 mph bullet just missed tying the event mark of 99 mph set by Blaze Alexander last year.

“This is all part of the process, just trying to get better each and every day,” Witt Jr. said. “You try to build off yesterday – learn from the bad, build off the good – just keep going, maintaining what I can do; just do what I can do, really.”

Witt Jr. will be a senior at Colleyville (Texas) High School in the fall and this spring’s CHS Panthers baseball team won the Texas University Interscholastic League Class 5A Region I District 8 championship with a 14-0 record. They wrapped up the season at 34-8-1 after losing a pair of games to Amarillo in the Regional Finals, ending any chance of winning a coveted Texas UIL state championship.

“We fell short of what we wanted to accomplish … so that just means we’re going to have some unfinished business next year,” Witt Jr. said. “But it’s a lot of fun playing with the guys that you’ve grown up with, that you have classes with, that you walk the halls with; it’s like a brotherhood.”

For an elite prospect like Witt Jr., baseball is a year-around pursuit, although he does step away from the hard-core baseball functions during the winter. He spends a lot of time working out and keeping in baseball shape while also making sure he eats right just to keep his body – and his mind – in ready for baseball season that can stretch from February through October.

This is the 16th PG event Witt Jr. has been involved with since the summer of 2016 and he already has 35 citations in his PG Trophy Case. He’s been named to three PG all-tournament teams and included on five showcase Top Prospect Lists, including the 2017 PG Jr. National and both the 2016 and 2017 PG Underclass All-American Classic Games.

When Witt Jr. leaves the PG National Showcase his next top will be Cary, N.C., for the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars event and from there, he hopes, the Team USA trials.

Next up on the calendar is the PG WWBA 17u National Championship at PG Park-LakePoint in Emerson, Ga., where he’ll be playing with the East Coast Sox Select and Witt Jr., and Oklahoma commit, isn’t the only notable on the EC Sox Select roster.

Other spots will be filled by Colton Bowman (No. 41-ranked, Oklahoma St. commit), Eric Brown (No. 372), Harrison Dorsett (No. 268, Ole Miss), Hayden Dunhurst (No. 70, Ole Miss), Ryan Hawks (No. 47, Louisville), Rece Hinds (No. 4, Louisiana State) and Jake Holland (No. 18, Miami), each of whom joined Witt Jr. at this week’s PG National.

There are a few more events on his docket as the summer rolls on, including the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., and, presumably, the PG All-American Classic in San Diego, both of which are held in August.

Witt Jr. is no stranger to the PGAAC. He was a Top Prospect List performer each of the last two years at the PG Underclass All-American Games, held in the days immediately following the Classic and last year was an honorary guest of PG at the Classic due to his standing as the No. 1-ranked prospect in his class.

“It was really awesome being out on the field with (the 2017 PGAAs),” he said. “And then, just this past two weeks seeing those guys get drafted, it was really cool. Just being around those dudes was awesome.”

There were 19 PG All-Americans selected in the first round of this year’s MLB Draft, many of them from the class of 2018. Witt Jr. might be separated from those guys by one year of high school, but they are, essentially, his peers. And he pays attention to his peers.

“I watched it this year with my dad and it’s surreal to see the dudes that I’ve played with and have hung out with get drafted; it’s awesome,” Witt said.

Bobby Witt Sr. is a right-hander who pitched for 16 seasons (1986-2001) in the big leagues after the Texas Rangers selected him with the No. 3 overall pick of the first round in the 1985 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Oklahoma. He continues to work with his son on a regular basis, throwing him BP and mostly making sure young Bobby keeps his head on straight.

“With his swing, I just watch what he does with that; I don’t try to tell him to do this or do whatever,” Witt Sr. said last June. “When he’s swinging it good I can kind of tell whether it’s a mechanical thing or not, but other than that I just try to help him mentally, as far as what to expect going forward.”

When speaking with Witt Jr., he offers a constant reminder that the most important aspect of this whole process is to just keep having fun every step of the way. He tries to never take anything for granted because he is fully aware that there are a lot of his peers who would love to be in his shoes, carrying the weight of that No. 1 national prospect ranking.

“It’s just been a grind, really, just trying to get better every day; that’s really my goal,” Witt Jr. said. “Trying to get bigger, faster, stronger and improve all the tools. … I feel like maybe I’ve gotten better, a little faster and stronger both physically and mentally.

“It’s just getting started for everything, and I’m ready to display everything I can do and keep getting better every day,” he concluded.

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