The obvious Anthony Volpe hope to begin the season was that he would emerge from spring training as an undeniable ball of flame, able to carry the Yankees' shortstop torch and capture Rookie of the Year in a single bound.
That was a first-percentile outcome, and despite a few electrifying stolen bases in April, it became immediately clear that such a fantasy probably would not be borne out. That left the Yankees hoping against hope that Volpe would fall somewhere in the middle, so undeniably talented that it was obvious he should be in the bigs, but far enough below the spotlight that he could work out his kinks in peace.
By June, that, too, had become far-fetched. The Yankees' first home series of the season against the Red Sox, where a struggling Volpe somehow found the spotlight repeatedly (how it always goes), represented what could've been an inflection point. It didn't seem likely he had much to learn at Triple-A; rather, it seemed more likely he'd be embarrassed there rather than inspired. But ... was there anything left to gain from being repeatedly beaten by fastballs and exposed at the big-league level, either? What level of poor performance constituted "taking his lumps" rather than "being forever damaged"?
Luckily, the Yankees never really needed to answer that haunting question. Soon after, Volpe visited with Austin Wells on an off day, pored over tape, potentially got Dillon Lawson fired, and began taking steps towards righting the ship. Would this trajectory have ever changed without Volpe's brainstorm? Who knows? The fact remains, though, that allowing this imperfect version of Volpe to "play through it" resulted in some effective soul-searching, and letting him fight through any remaining struggles in Aug. and Sept. could set up a massive Year 2 leap.
Need more inspiration that such a leap is possible? Look no further than Kansas City, where the Royals are reaping the rewards after letting top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. fight through a similarly uninspiring rookie campaign following the hype machine hitting overdrive.
Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe making real progress. And Year 2 should be another step.
Entering Witt Jr.'s rookie season in 2022, he was ranked as the top overall prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline (an outlet that, while not Baseball America, does a pretty good job of appraising close-to-MLB talent). Volpe, entering the 2023 season, ranked fifth on the list (up from eighth in 2022).
Witt Jr., if it's even possible, might've been under more pressure than Volpe when he embarked on his big-league journey. Volpe had the weight of Derek Jeter and his lifelong Yankees fandom resting on his shoulders, but at least he was surrounded by Aaron Judge. His team already had a captain. Witt Jr.'s Royals needed a savior and a foundation, all in one.
Not only did Witt Jr. not grab the team's reins and run with them as a 21-turning-22-year-old (sound familiar?), but he even managed to struggle more as the season dragged on. His best month was May; he posted an .829 OPS, though his average still sagged to .243. His highest batting average in a month was .294 in July, paired with a .761 OPS. In the season's second half, he stumbled, posting a .686 OPS that dropped his season-long OPS+ mark to 103, narrowly above average. His expected stats were similarly middling, with xBA (.257) and xwOBA (.311) marks befitting a solid season that trended down and did not portend immediate greatness.
But in 2023? Everything has turned around, including his famously maligned defense. Suddenly, he's no longer a net negative in that department, but has reached the 100th percentile in Outs Above Average. His below-the-hood numbers are spectacular, and he's scorched his way through the second half, batting .342 with a 1.024 OPS in 27 games, raising his full-season output to 3.7 bWAR and a 119 OPS+.
When Volpe's season looked darkest, it was tough to see a similar dawn. Since mid-June, though, the Yankees' shortstop -- at the same age -- has already shown more progression than Witt Jr. did in his debut season. He's begun to turn on inner-half fastballs again, with a short, quick stroke. He's maintained an impressive level of graded-out defensive intensity (86th percentile in OAA already). His barrel percentage (9.1%, dragged down by his slow start) exceeds Witt Jr.'s 2022 number (8.7%).
Witt Jr. hasn't appeared in a minor-league game since 2021, and Volpe has spent most of the second half showing the Yankees why they were correct to follow a similar model, despite his near-derailment in June. Evaluators correctly pegged both of these standouts as supreme talents. Witt Jr.'s explosion will be a tough act to follow, but based on Volpe's 2022 progress, he's already slightly ahead of the recently-set pace. There are no guarantees in this business, but there are certainly plenty of reasons to believe, especially with such a readily-accessible blueprint currently unfolding in the midwest.