When was the first time you struggled at something you were really, genuinely great at? Building expertise requires at least approaching adolescence in many cases, but for most of us it is cultivated in our late teenage years and beyond. Building on our passions or our requirements, we find Our Things. For many, this growth is daunting, and it may never feel resolved, even as we age and inarguably develop skills and tools to help ourselves navigate the world. But some days we falter. Some weeks, months, even years feel like a slow somersault down a hill towards a distant swamp. For many of us, this first great stumble comes sooner rather than later, and it can be the catalyst to disrupt us from pursuing something further. A poor recital, a bad stretch in school, an injury or a lousy series of performances in a sport, it can waylay the best of us. I do not know Evan White’s childhood, but I doubt he ever struggled with baseball the way he did in his first season with the Seattle Mariners, and now he has to recover.
White Claw was advertised as a superlative defender and lived up to the hype in every way. His Gold Glove Award was recognition that the league sees him similarly, but it shone almost every game of the year. It’s odd to think that one of the most exciting features of the Mariners in 2021 will be seeing a full year of glovework from their 1st baseman (and some might argue an indictment) but it’s not intended as damning with faint praise in the slightest. It’s brilliant stuff.
But it’s not enough. The list of below-average hitting 1Bs who have still had good seasons, much less careers is, well, nonexistent. Unless you’re a platoon hitter or playing every outfield spot excellently half the time like Darin Erstad, you simply have to hit. White’s 66 wRC+ was the second-worst wRC+ in a “full” season by a primary 1B in the past 25 years, saved only by the catastrophe that was 2018 Chris Davis. His .176/.252/.346 line came with a scuzzy 41.6% strikeout rate that evoked too many Mike Zunino comparisons for comfort. They’re comparisons with merit, as White’s Statcast numbers have enough red and blue (top/bottom-10/5/1% in the league) to make his display look downright patriotic.
As the song goes, I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. White was saved from having the worst strikeout rate in MLB last year by Miguel Sano (43.9%!), but when you’re over six percent worse than Joey Gallo (35%) you’re not in a position for success. Modern MLB is a place where whiffs are not a death-knell, of course, and White has several characteristics of a successful strikeout-heavy hitter: hard hit rates in the stratosphere, excellent exit velocities, and barrel rates among the league’s best. The latter part is particularly validating, as it shows that when White makes contact, he’s not wasting his oomph, but is putting the ball on a line and in the air where it is likeliest to be extra bases. We saw that at times, and it looked great!
With his above-average speed (85th percentile sprint speed!), not only can White clobber the ball, but he can snag extra bases, swipe bags, and create scoring opportunities on hits from his teammates. But he has to make more contact. Kate and Joe went in depth on how White’s swing had gotten overwrought and how the jump from Double-A to the bigs clearly was a big one for him. LL commenter Backflash Kevin furthered that with a fabulous FanPost on White’s struggles, outlining how, in essence, White struggled in ways understandable (big league breaking balls are tough) and more discouraging (fastballs in the heart of the plate shouldn’t be as tough).
I recommend you read Kevin’s article, but (spoilers) one note compares White’s swing to Tom Murphy, who became a better impact hitter even as he maintained a heightened strikeout rate. White had to make similar adjustments in the minor leagues, and at times still overcoiled his bat as he attempted to break his habits. His bat path, late in the season, started low, moved up and back, before coming back down.
Some hitters need the extra coil to generate power, with longer levers that cause a need to sacrifice adjustment time for impact. White, however, generates an exceptional amount of torque with his hips, in part no doubt thanks to the same flexibility and athleticism that makes him so exceptional in the field. A shorter stroke for White can still generate top tier exit velocity while hopefully allowing improved contact. A player to watch in comparison to White is Milwaukee Brewers 2B Keston Hiura, who had a BABIP-fueled bonanza of a rookie campaign in 2019 before a less-fortuitous 2020. Like White, Hiura strikes out more than you’d like (32.3% in his first 594 PA as a pro) but has been fairly successful thanks to barreling the ball up consistently when he makes contact and using hustle and decent speed to stretch extra bases. Hiura is still seeking the right balance, just as White is, but there’s a pathway to success with these tools.
In the end for Evan White, the best news is that he will have plenty of time to figure it out. Power cures many ills, and we should expect the Ohio native to start almost every game in 2021, health willing. The Mariners believe in him, and as he turns 25 late this April, there’s plenty of hope for a player with just 202 plate appearances in the bigs. But there need to be improvements this year, and hopefully they come soon. We all fail eventually, but White must adjust.