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Evan White’s rough road

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The rookie is trying to do something only a select few players over the past ten years have done. There were always going to be speed bumps.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Before we say anything: Evan White has around 50 PAs in MLB. That’s half of what Ronald Acuña Jr. had in Triple-A before he was called up. That’s a smaller sample size than Aaron Judge’s first exposure to MLB, when he struck out 44% of the time in 95 PAs for a -.2 fWAR. That’s, as John has pointed out, shorter than the length of Taylor Motter “Pop” fever. It’s way, very, extremely too early to make any kinds of judgments about Evan White, Major Leaguer.

However, it’s undeniable that White is struggling—the normally stoic White has even started to show some visible frustration himself—so it seems like it would be a good time to give some context on what White is doing, and why it’s so hard, and what to look for going forward.

In the past ten years, about 2000 players have made their MLB debuts, averaging about 230 per year (the lowest number is 2012, when 206 players debuted; the highest was 2017, when 262 players set foot in a big-league clubhouse for the first time). Of these players, many are here for a good time, not a long time; others are franchise cornerstones. Of all these players though, only 70 of them have gone straight to the bigs from Double-A prior to this season. Of that number, 38 are pitchers—Dan Altavilla and Edwin Diaz say hello—while just 32 are position players—including the Mariners’ own Kyle Lewis. That’s the company in which Evan White finds himself.

The vast majority of prospects still go through Triple-A. Generally, the players who skip Triple-A are IFA signings with some degree of experience in the professional leagues in their own countries: Yusei Kikuchi, Shohei Ohtani, Yasiel Puig, and Guillermo Heredia all skipped straight to the bigs from Double-A, although both Puig and Heredia found themselves eventually putting in time in the Triple-A ranks. The other class of players who skip Triple-A are the no-doubt talents: Andrew Benintendi, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado, Jose Altuve. Miguel Sano, Kyle Schwarber, and Michael Conforto (and it could be argued, KLew) aren’t maybe in the same tier of those players, but all skipped Triple-A as well on their way to the bigs. Club philosophy can play a role in this as well; the Royals are loath to skip players past Triple-A, although they’ve inserted top pitching prospect Brady Singer into the rotation for 2020 to get him some experience, while the Twins are somewhat more aggressive in promotions, sending both Sanó and Byron Buxton past Triple-A (although Buxton was swiftly sent back to the level after striking out 32% of the time in 138 PAs in 2015).

It’s hard to find an exact parallel for Evan White in this group; he’s not a no-doubt masher like Benintendi or Soto or Tatis, whose defense was the question mark. The Braves promoted Dansby Swanson in 2016 after a very brief time in the minors, including 377 PAs in Double-A where he slashed .261/.342/.402, with fewer strikeouts but lower overall production than White at Arkansas. Swanson took well to the bigs initially, slashing .302/.361/.442 over 145 PAs, but ran into a wall in 2017—his strikeout/walk numbers weren’t atrocious, but Swanson just failed to make powerful contact. His barrel rate of 3% was close to the bottom of MLB, as was his 87 mph average exit velocity. Swanson will never be a masher, but his barrel percentage, at least, has improved, and he now ranks in the upper quartile for hard hit percentage.

Making hard contact isn’t White’s issue; he already ranks in the upper quartile for both hard hit and exit velocity. When he hits the ball, he punishes it. The problem is White, after a minors career where he never struck out more than 23% of the time, has become a whiff-monster, currently leading all of MLB in strikeouts. Not only is he missing on the plus breaking stuff we expected him to struggle with—AA pitching tends to be underdeveloped in that regard—but he’s missing stuff he should be able to punish in the heart of the plate, especially up in the zone. Pitchers are still getting him on sliders away, but they’re also not afraid to challenge him on the plate.

Brace your eyes, because this is ugly:

One of the biggest warts currently stifling White’s game is his difficulty getting into advantageous counts; moreover, his ability to avoid expected-outcome-crippling counts. Over 29 percent of White’s at-bats to this point have ended up at 0-2. As one might expect, White is 0 for 12 in those plate appearances with 9 strikeouts. For perspective, in 2019, less than 20 percent of big league at-bats got to 0-2. From 2015-2018, batters hit just .157 when a count got to 0-2. It’s critical for White to find ways to work an at-bat moving forward.

Compounding White’s troubles, it looks as though he guessing pitches when behind in counts. Not only is he seemingly guessing pitches, he’s expanding the zone to exorbitant levels. There’s no way a guy would swing at a changeup that bounces in front of the plate, in an 0-2 count, if he isn’t guessing the pitcher is going to try to sneak a low fastball by him. It’s hard to believe a guy as talented as White would swing at several pitches at his eyes if he’s not expecting the pitch. More than anything, he needs to get back to his read and react approach, and stay middle-middle early in counts.

If you’d had to guess, in May of 2019, which player would struggle more in the bigs, Lewis or White, the safe money would have been betting on Lewis. In May of 2019, KLew had an OPS of .584, with 30 strikeouts in 94 ABs. White was also slow to start, having missed the back half of April with a hamstring injury, with an OPS of just .728 in May, and 21 strikeouts of his own in 75 ABs. Both players heated up in June, with KLew adding a hundred points to his slash line across the board, but it was White who had an OPS of 1.087, having cut his strikeouts down to just 20 in 97 ABs. White is not afraid to be aggressive early in counts, but in Arkansas he was equally prone to working a long at-bat and forcing the pitcher to throw him something useful.

It was Lewis, however, who got the call to Seattle after Arkansas lost in the Texas League playoffs, and immediately electrified the league, a trend that has happily carried over into this season. The org opted to give White a break after a long season that had included a trip to the AFL the previous fall, and some major personal milestones coming up for White that off-season as he was getting married, purchasing his first home, and moving to Arizona. After all, they were nearing a long-term deal with White, locking the 23-year-old into a future as the Mariners’ everyday first baseman.

It’s not hard to see what the Mariners saw in White; in addition to his 70-grade defense, White had made a swing change (documented extensively by our John Trupin) helping him to put the ball in the air more and create more damage with his swings.

Initially, it looked like White would continue to feast on poorly-located pitches in MLB, when he absolutely smoked this changeup for his first career homer in just his fourth game:

Unfortunately, since then it’s been much more swing-and-miss and frustration, capping off with this pretty dreadful sequence against Dylan Bundy in Thursday’s game:

What’s troubling about this strikeout compared to all the other strikeouts is that Bundy initially tried to get White fishing after a slider away. White resisted (yay!), so then Bundy came back with three fastballs, none of which White could catch up to despite being at a below-average 90 mph. On the third pitch White looks pretty thoroughly defeated, disheartening both for him and for fans. White can have a weakness—he can chase sliders away, or he can miss in the middle—but being vulnerable to pitches all over the plate is not a recipe for big-league success.

What’s also troubling about this is the swings just aren’t very good. They are a far cry from the Evan White who let the ball travel into his hitting zone, as you see in the earlier clip from Arkansas, before turning on a pitch and doing damage. White doesn’t even appear to be watching the ball in here, with his head pulling up off the ball in the follow-through—each progressive swing in the Bundy at-bat is worse in that department. Compare that to the stillness of the head here:

It’s not just his head drifting either. White’s swing in 2019 featured easy, natural loft and a bat path that didn’t get exposed by pitches middle-middle. In 2020, he’s been dropping his back shoulder and getting “stuck” in his backside in an attempt to lift the ball. Weight re-distribution during his stride will be important moving forward if White is to get on top of the ball with any consistency. The balance isn’t there right now as he’s consistently ending up on his back heels. It’s a pull-happy, lift-centric approach that’s inhibited White to drive the ball up the middle or go the other way. It’s exactly why he’s not hitting line drives and instead dribbling balls over the infield on breaking balls and swinging under heaters.

Pitchers will continue to challenge White with fastballs high in the zone and sliders away. While White has showed some encouraging signs of being able to lay off the sliders here and there, every new pitcher he faces is another learning curve. Luckily for White, the geographically-condensed league means he’ll get to see those same pitchers over and over again, just like he did in the Texas League. White’s minor league career has been full of adjustments; there’s no reason to believe that will stop being the case as a pro.

Despite some mechanical flaws currently thwarting White’s success, much of his struggles stem from being over-anxious and guess-hitting. Let’s preface this suggestion by saying we don’t envy someone like White in the midst of a slump, because frankly, hitting a baseball at 95 or breaking down and away is one of the most difficult things to do on this planet. But this really may boil down to White trusting his eyes. A focus on reacting to hittable pitches rather than selling out on a guess is a huge first step of getting back on the proverbial horse. The operational adjustments will come with time and practice.