The exciting thing about tracking prospects is that they are always on the cusp of possibility. As Mariners fans are probably more aware than anyone in recent years, it can be stressful watching a major league team on the brink of contention. The result of every game matters as much as the process, and the individual successes and struggles of players are magnified in less than flattering ways [glances askance at both Mariners corner infielders]. But prospects are blissfully unbound by the results, and instead exist in a beautiful world of process. Recently, no Mariners’ prospect has taken a more exciting step forward in his process than 1B Evan White.
Seattle’s No. 2 overall prospect is hitting a torrid .387/.464/.743(!) in the month of August, with 5 HRs and a hilarious 217 wRC+. This recent stretch of success is in part fueled by a >.400 BABIP in the past month, but White’s improvements track with adjustments he’s made that seem to be paying dividends. If this improvement holds, it would be a huge boon for the Mariners looking for a fast-moving piece on their generally low-ceiling farm.
White was Seattle’s 1st-round pick in the 2017 draft, where the consensus on him was clear. A 1st-round talent with Gold Glove-level defense at first, White would either need to add power to his solid hit profile to stick at the cold corner or slide to a corner outfield position. His swing coming out of college was compact, efficient, and flat.
It’s a perfectly acceptable swing, and served the 6’3, 205 lb prospect well, but it was the primary source of concern for White’s critics. Baseball America was succinct in the knocks on White’s profile:
...Scouts do understandably wonder about White’s power. He generally earns fringe-average power grades from scouts and he’s never reached double digits in home runs at Kentucky. As a righthanded hitting, lefthanded throwing first baseman/corner outfielder White is going to have to hit for at least average power in pro ball. He does have some athleticism and the frame to add some more weight.
Our own prospect writer emeritus Ethan Novak was even more succinct in evaluating White:
[It’s] a line drive swing. A swing like this won’t produce a ton of home runs unless the hitter possesses Popeye arms and Barry Bonds legs.
Those concerns flowed into pro ball, as White’s injury-shortened 2017 season in Low-A Everett was followed by a tepid first half in High-A Modesto, particularly in the power department. In the first half of 2018 White was, bluntly, not an impact hitter. His .279/.339/.393 line and a league-adjusted 99 wRC+ leading up to the California League All-Star Break highlighted a glaring issue: a meager .115 ISO. As a brief reminder for the non-saber-inclined, ISO is short for “Isolated Power” and is simply Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average. A .140 ISO is around MLB average, but you’d typically expect more from a 1B (.186 is the MLB average for a 1B in 2018), and you’d certainly hope for more from a top 1B prospect in the mid-minors.
In the notoriously hitter-friendly Cal League, a slugging line that included just 3 home runs in 271 PAs was cause for concern. His swing, it appeared, was largely what it had been in college as of early May, 2018:
That swing, with the hands beginning raised off his shoulder and leading into a smooth, flat swing, remained essentially the same through July 15th, 2018, where we see White in Stockton here:
Even on this swing and a miss, we get a sense of the excellent hip rotation White gets on his swings. That torque is assuredly what helps White put blistering exit velocities on the baseball, as Mariners’ Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter highlighted following White’s selection:
“He has a very compact, short swing. The power is in there. He scores in the upper echelon in exit velocity in all of college baseball in terms of players who went higher in this Draft. We believe a minor adjustment will tap into that power because the bat speed, the knowledge of the strike zone, a lot of those things are in place. Now it’s just a matter of getting into his legs a little more and making a couple minor adjustments.”
It seems the adjustment finally began to take hold somewhere between July 16th and July 24th, as the next time we see film of White, his hands are beginning his swing at a lower level, but his swing plane on the whole remains largely unchanged:
An effort is being made, clearly, but the execution is shaky at this early stage. Still, we can see the difference between the clip above and where White’s hands used to begin last year and even earlier in 2018 here (as well as, according to noted Butt Expert Kate Preusser, a thicker trunk from which power can grow):
Despite the clear differences in the July 24th gif above, White clearly was in the early stages of his adjustment, still instinctively raising his hands in reaction to the pitch, and over the next week his numbers continued to flounder. It was not for another couple weeks, including four days off from August 3-6, that on August 7th we would see White emerge from his mechanical chrysalis, reborn in the light of the swing change revolution, elevating and celebrating.
There are a couple things to see here.
1. Obviously the hands remain lowered. As we’ve seen with numerous hitters—notably Jean Segura, Braden Bishop, and Mitch Haniger, if you’re seeking examples solely in the Mariners organization—there is power and bat speed to be had by beginning your hands lower. There’s no one “right” way to hit, so it’s not like this is a clear improvement, per se, but having seen numerous high-contact, middling power types find success in recent years with this adjustment, it’s exciting to see White echoing that.
2. The angle of the swing has changed. There are many impolite words I’d use to describe what White did to that baseball, but none of them would be “flat.” While the axis of his rotation has changed (aka he’s swinging with a slight uppercut now), the excellent hip rotation he’s displayed his whole career remains just as explosive. And it’s not just on middle-middle fastballs:
Just for fun, here’s another White smash this August, evoking a decidedly Hanigerian style as well as the ire of the catcher.
The adjustment isn’t seismic, but the slight shift from a flat plane that generates grounders and line drives to a slight uppercut that creates liners and fly balls makes a massive difference. White has pumped up his ISO from .132 in 408 PAs before July 24th (or .115 in 443 PAs before August 7th) to a healthier .152 on the season and a patently absurd .263 since July 24th (and .393!!! since August 7th). In the same time frame his BB% has increased and his K% has fallen. Those numbers don’t include Sunday’s game, where White went 3-for-4 and was a HR away from the cycle.
We’re always warned to avoid drawing conclusions from small data samples and I certainly won’t tell you this guarantees White to be an MLB star. What I will say is the lone knock on White has rightfully been his lack of power, as his speed, defense, arm, and approach at the plate all are plus tools. If the power sticks, White might just live up to the Cody Bellinger comparisons he’s so often found affixed to him.
It’s just one month, but it’s a month highlighted by a visibly different approach, and an adjustment the organization, if we are to believe Hunter’s quote above, has been working towards since they first selected White. The earliest White could help the Mariners directly will still be late 2019 in the most optimistic of timelines, but if this holds, it’s an exciting step for an organization that dearly needs something to look forward to beyond the 25-man roster.