Evan White and Making it in the Majors

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the amazing defense, surprising speed, and raw power of Evan White, he had a disappointing debut in 2020. After receiving a 6-year, $24 million contract last offseason, the Mariners promoted Evan from AA to be their starting first baseman hoping that he could combine his plus glove, and plus speed with solid offensive numbers to produce a promising rookie season. And although the glove and the speed were there, Evan struggled with the bat and ended his rookie campaign below replacement level.

While Evan's raw power was displayed in 2020 (his average exit velocity was 88th percentile), Evan ended the season with a 66 wRC+ thanks to a ridiculously high 41.6% strikeout rate. Evan's strikeout rate was second only to that of Miguel Sano (43.9%) and a full 5 percentage points above that of the third place finisher, Willy Adames (36.1%).

With a strikeout rate above 40%, it's hard to see Evan becoming a viable major league baseball player. Therefore, the question is: can Evan right the ship and become a productive hitter? To answer this question, we are first going to look at the inputs that caused Evan to strike out 41.6% of his plate appearances and then explore the likelihood of him reducing his strikeout rate enough to become the Mariners' first baseman of the future.

To understand why Evan strikes out so much, the first input we are going to look at are his plate discipline metrics. At a high-level, Evan seems to have decent control of the strike zone. Compared to the league average, he swings at a similar mix of pitches in the zone, and actually chases fewer pitches outside the zone.

Although Evan's plate discipline looks okay at a high-level, there are some real problems. To see them though, we have to zoom-in on these metrics a bit further. To illustrate Evan's plate discipline issues, I'm going to break his swing-take decisions down by 1) when he's ahead in the count (i.e. 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, and 3-1) versus when he has two strikes, and 2) when he is thrown a fastball (including four-seam, two-seam, sinker, and cutter) versus when he is thrown an offspeed or breaking pitch.

The first plot I'm going to show is Evan's swing decisions when ahead in the count. What's important to note here is that when he's ahead in the count, Evan swings at a higher rate of pitches than his colleagues. This is true for both pitches in the zone and pitches out of the zone, and for both fastballs and non-fastballs.
Now let's look at the same plot, but this time for Evan's swing decisions when faced with two strikes. The contrast here is obvious. Whereas when ahead in the count, Evan's swing rate was well above league average, with two strikes, his swing rate is well below league average. And once again, this is true regardless of pitch location and pitch type.
It's difficult to tell exactly what's going on here without going into the mind of Evan White, but to me it looks like he's doing too much guessing. By which I mean: when he's ahead in the count he is selling out for a pitch to hit in the zone, and when faced with two strikes, he's freezing up in anticipation of the strikeout pitch off the plate. It simply doesn't make sense that when ahead in the count, Evan's ability to lay-off breaking pitches outside the zone is below league average, but with two strikes he is somehow amazing at seeing and not chasing those same pitches.

If Evan is going to lower his strikeout rate, he is going to have to do a better job of picking up the pitch out of the pitchers hand and reacting rather than guessing before the ball is thrown. Already, this approach is hurting Evan because he's swinging at too many chase pitches when ahead in the count and looking at too many fastballs for strike three, but things can still get worse for him. Pitchers haven't yet adjusted to take advantage of this weakness and have been throwing a pitch mix that is more or less in line with the league average. Sooner or later, pitchers are going to take advantage of Evan's approach by throwing more junk pitches early in the count, and more fastballs with two strikes. When that happens, Evan will be contending with another force pushing his strikeout rate even higher.

The second input we'll examine to understand why Evan strikes out so much are his contact metrics. Fortunately for us, we don't need to dig nearly as far to see the issue. You can see what I mean by comparing his contact rate to the league average in the next plot.
Evan's contact numbers are significantly worse than the rest of the league. While it's clear that he struggles regardless of the pitch, his biggest issue is with breaking and offspeed pitches outside the zone. His contact rate on these pitches is well below half of the league average. This is such a huge disadvantage because it limits his ability to fight off good strikeout pitches with two strikes and stay in the at bat. His inability to hit these pitches may also explain why he is so adverse to swinging with two strikes.

Once again, it's worth noting that pitchers haven't yet adjusted to take advantage of this weakness. Not only does Evan see slightly fewer breaking and offspeed pitches than other hitters, but the ones he is thrown catch a bit more of the plate. You can see what I mean in the following density maps showing breaking and offspeed pitch locations for Evan and for all right-handed batters.
The dark-blue, egg-shaped core on Evan's map is slightly more in the zone, and bulges more towards the middle of the plate than that of the league average right-handed batter. If the league was taking advantage of Evan's weakness on hitting breaking and offspeed pitches, you'd see the core on his density map shift more towards the edges of the strike zone. Like before, the possibility of a future league adjustment is another uphill battle Evan will have to face. So far, pitchers have been able to dispatch Evan with fastballs in the zone, but if he ever starts thumping those pitches, then he can be sure he'll start seeing more junk off the plate. And for a player that has a tough time laying off chase pitches, and whiffs at 80% of breaking pitches outside the zone, that represents a huge liability.

Now that we have a solid understanding of Evan's strikeout problems, let's estimate Evan's chances of lowering his strikeout rate enough to become a viable everyday hitter. To get a baseline of what we should expect from Evan and his strikeout rate going forward, I complied a list of high strikeout players and examined how their strikeout rate changes after their first 202 plate appearances in the big leagues (the same numbers of plate appearances Evan had in 2020). To qualify for the list, players had to meet the following criteria. 1) They must have at least a 35% strikeout rate over their first 202 plate appearances. 2) They must have at least 400 total plate appearances so we have a large enough sample size to track how their strikeout rate changed. And, 3) They must have debut in 2015 or later because that is the first year Statcast data was available.

In total, there are 13 players that qualified for this list. They range in ability from great to bad, but the key takeaway from this group is that on average, they reduced their strikeout rate by about 5 percentage points after their first 202 MLB plate appearances.

Unfortunately for Evan, a 5 percentage point improvement in his strikeout rate won't be enough. If Evan drops his strikeout rate by 5 percentage point, he'd still have over a 36% strikeout rate, and Evan doesn't have the right hitter profile to own a 36% strikeout rate. On the above list, there actually are two players that are good hitters and own above a 36% strikeout rate, but they are different beasts. These two men are Joey Gallo and Miguel Sano, and although they don't hit the ball all that often, when they do, their impact is huge.

The way we can measure the relative impact a player has when they hit the ball is by using XWOBACON (expected weighted on base average on contact). This statistic measures the expected run value of a ball hit into play by using the exit velocity, launch angle, and the batter's sprint speed (you can learn more about XWOBACON here). Now let's compare the XWOBACON numbers of Evan White, Joey Gallo, and Miguel Sano.

Evan's XWOBACON versus that of the league average is certainly good, but Gallo's and Sano's XWOBACON numbers are on a different level. For both Sano and Gallo, the XWOBACON gap between them and Evan is over 1.5 times larger than the XWOBACON gap between Evan and the league average. And just to be clear, Sano and Gallo have been achieving these crazy XWOBACON numbers since even their rookie year.

So, while it's encouraging to look at Evan's exit velocity and be excited for the future, that in itself won't be enough. What Evan needs is about a 10 percentage point drop in his strikeout rate so that he's sitting closer to a 30% strikeout rate. At this point Evan won't be elite, but he'll at least be serviceable. Moreover, Evan doesn't just need to reduce his strikeout rate to around 30%, but he needs to do so without sacrificing his power. To understand what I mean by this, let's look at another player on the high strikeout list, Tyler O'Neill.

O'Neill had a strikeout rate of 42.1% over his first 200 plate appearances, which was even worse than Evan. After 200 plate appearances though, he's managed to drop his strikeout rate by over 14 percentage points, and in 2020 had a strikeout rate of only 27.4%. In the meantime though, his power numbers have plummeted along with his strikeout rate. You can see this by looking at O'Neill's XWOBACON numbers season by season as his strikeout rate drops.

Over this time period, O'Neill's wRC+ dropped from 116 in 2018 to 70 in 2020, meaning that he was actually better off when he was striking out over 40% of his plate appearances. The expectation that Evan will be productive with a 30% strikeout rate is predicated on the fact that his power won't disappear as he reduces his strikeout rate.

So, with Tyler O'Neill and Joey Gallo out of the picture, there aren't a whole lot of examples of high strikeout players reducing their strikeout rate and becoming good hitters. JaCoby Jones has done a nice job of reducing his strikeout rate by 10 percentage points while maintaining his XWOBACON, but even the JaCoby Jones of 2019 and 2020 who had a 29.0% strikeout rate, a 7.7% walk rate, and a .413 XWOBACON was only a league average hitter (100 wRC+). Aaron Judge was able to reduce his strikeout rate from 44.2% over 95 plate appearances in 2016, to 30.7% over 678 plate appearances in 2017, but I'm not so sure he is the right comparable for Evan because of the different way pitchers attack these two hitters. To see what I'm talking about, let's look at the pitch locations for White's 2020 season (top) and Judge's 2016 season (bottom).

The biggest difference here is on fastball pitch location. Evan got pitches pretty much right in the heart of the plate, and Judge got pitches low and out of the zone. While Judge did improve his contact skills in both pitches in and outside the zone the following season in 2017, the biggest improvement he made was not swinging at pitches outside the zone, and crushing the ones that were left inside the zone. For Evan though, the fastballs he's seeing are already down the heart of the plate, and he is swinging at them, he's just missing them too.

Overall, I'm not optimistic about Evan's chances of becoming the star that we all want him to be. Historical performance of high strikeout hitters doesn't suggest that Evan is going to be anything more than a league average hitter, and as we have already seen, there are still some big adjustments that pitchers can make to take advantage of Evan in the future. If I had to guess, I'd say Evan will be able to drop his strikeout rate to about 35% and be a slightly below league average hitter. Being a first baseman though (despite the fact that he's a good one), his positional value is low, and at this point, I'd be happy to see him become a two WAR per season player,

Of course, I may be wrong (and I would be joyfully wrong), but I think it's important to set realistic expectations so we don't get high on a player again and then become disappointed when things don't pan out. But I also don't think that means we should write-off Evan just yet, and in an attempt to end this post on an optimistic note, I'm going to compare Evan to one last player on the high strikeout list, Tom Murphy.

Before coming to Seattle, Tom Murphy was terrible. Over 210 plate appearances in Colorado, he had a 39.0% strikeout rate and a 69 wRC+. Over 281 plate appearances in Seattle though, he reduced his strikeout rate to 31.0% and improved his wRC+ to 126. Last year, Rian Watt at Fangraphs interviewed Tom for an article in which Tom talked about the mechanical adjustments he made that helped him improve as a hitter. In the article, one of the adjustments that Mariner hitting coach Tim Laker helped Tom make was taking the slack out of his swing before the ball is thrown. Before, Tom was pulling his upper body back after the pitch was thrown, whereas after the adjustment, he pulled his upper body back before the pitch. This adjustment allowed Tom first action after the ball was thrown to be towards the ball rather than back and then forward (Rian Watt shows video examples of this in the linked article if you are interested). This adjustment not only allowed Tom to be more direct to the ball, but shortened his swing cycle and give him more time make a swing decision.

The reason I bring up this particular adjustment is because I see Evan doing the exact same thing Tom was doing before coming to Seattle. That is, Evan is pulling the slack out of his swing after the pitch is thrown. To see what I'm talking about take a look at this example of Evan's swing (I suggest slowly moving the slider on the bottom of the video to see his swing in slow motion). You can see how after the pitch leaves the pitchers hand, Evan's upper body swings back before driving forward to the ball. Now compare Evan's swing to this example from the much more polished hitter, Mookie Betts. It's easy to see how Betts's entire body is driving towards the ball out of the pitcher's hand and how he's already swung his upper body back before the pitch is thrown.

My hope is that Tim Laker can do what he did for Tom Murphy and help him make this adjustment. If Evan can make this adjustment, he'll have an easier time not only connecting with pitches, but he'll also have more time to pick up on what the pitch is before he needs to make a swing decision. If Evan comes into Spring Training next year with an improved swing, I think there is reason to be hopeful. But if Evan comes into next year, with a similar looking swing, and is still guessing what pitch he'll be thrown and still whiffing at fastballs down the middle, I fear that Evan may not be the Mariners long-term solution at first base.