Evan White was arguably baseball’s best defensive first baseman in 2020. Regrettably, his offensive production was the polar opposite. These contrasting realities have a segment of the Seattle Mariners’ fan base wondering whether White can become a foundational piece for the rebuilding franchise.
Fan apprehension about White is understandable. It’s hard to ignore a .176 AVG, which was the lowest among qualified hitters this year. Other than slugging eight home runs, all of the rookie’s numbers were significantly below MLB averages.
Still, we should remember White’s ugly stat line was merely a short introduction to a bigger story yet to be written. With this in mind, let’s consider the former Kentucky Wildcat’s brief 54-game audition by reviewing several key points about his debut campaign. Some are good, or at least encouraging. Others are really bad, but need to be covered.
Let’s start with the worst one.
Historically High Strikeout Rate
White’s 41.6-percent strikeout rate was second only to Miguel Sanó of the Twins in 2020, but it gets worse. The duo didn’t just pace the majors this year. They produced the two highest strikeout rates of any qualified hitter in MLB history.
Highest Strikeout Rates Ever
Miguel Sanó – 43.9% (2020)
Evan White – 41.6% (2020)
Chris Davis – 37.2% (2017)
Joey Gallo – 36.8% (2017)
Chris Davis – 36.8% (2018)
Chris Carter – 36.2% (2013)
Willy Adames – 36.1% (2020)
Joey Gallo – 35.9% (2018)
Mark Reynolds – 35.4% (2010)
Joey Gallo – 35% (2020)
Another indicator of White’s struggles was the high number of multiple-strikeout games. Even for a rookie, the right-handed hitter struck out at a near-record pace. Only Sanó and Javier Báez of the Cubs had more two-plus strikeout performances in their first 54 career games.
To be fair, White isn’t not alone in rapidly achieving a significant number of two-strikeout games. Stars such as Giancarlo Stanton (23), Trevor Story (22), George Springer (22), Kris Bryant (22), and Fernando Tatís Jr. (21) were relatively close to White’s total after their first 54 contests.
Not Enough Contact
Although White struck out at a record-setting pace, he wasn’t a free-swinger. Check out his plate discipline numbers found at Baseball Savant. Included are MLB averages for each category.
Among hitters facing 750-plus pitches, White’s 43.8-percent swing rate ranked just ninety-first. Notable hitters swinging more often included Corey Seager, José Abreu, Freddie Freeman, D.J. LeMahieu, Bryce Harper, Trevor Story, Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz, and Tatís. Similarly, the Mariners’ first baseman wasn’t hyper-aggressive by chasing balls outside the strike zone.
Although White wasn’t a free-swinger, his contact rates inside and outside of the strike zone were significantly lower than MLB averages. As a result, the Ohio native’s 38-percent whiff rate fell in the fourth percentile meaning 96-percent of hitters were better. Whiff rate is the percent of misses on attempted swings.
The perfect storm of White’s below average swing aggression and low contact rates led to him putting just 12-percent of pitches he saw into play, which was one of the lowest rates among qualified hitters this year.
Lowest Percentage of Balls Put in Play
Miguel Sanó – 11%
Christian Yelich – 11.3%
Ronald Acuña Jr. – 11.4%
Joey Gallo – 11.9%
Niko Goodrum – 11.9%
Gary Sánchez – 11.9%
Evan White – 12%
Yasmani Grandal – 12.2%
Gregory Polanco – 12.6%
Ryan McMahon – 12.7%
A subset of White’s contact issues was the number of times he struck out on a called strike. On 253 occasions, the Lincoln High School product faced a two-strike. Once again, he led the majors in an inauspicious category by hearing a called strike three on 10.3-percent of those pitches.
Now that we’ve discussed the really bad stuff, let’s look at factors suggesting White can improve upon his extremely difficult rookie campaign.
Great Hard Hit Rate
In November 2019, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told David Laurila of FanGraphs that White had the second highest exit velocity in Seattle’s minor league system behind only 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis.
This year, the 24-year-old validated Dipoto’s confidence with a 52.5-percent hard hit rate, which ranked thirteenth among qualified hitters. Hard hit rate is the percent of batted balls with an exit velocity greater than or equal to 95-MPH. The following list, which includes White, includes several of baseball’s biggest stars.
Top Hard Hit Rates
Fernando Tatís Jr. (62.2%)
Travis d’Arnaud (57.8%)
Miguel Sanó (57.3%)
Ronald Acuña Jr. (57%)
Corey Seager (55.9%)
Eloy Jiménez (55.7%)
Christian Yelich (55.6%)
Mike Trout (55.1%)
Marcell Ozuna (54.4%)
Freddie Freeman (54.2%)
José Abreu (53.3%)
Teoscar Hernández (53.1%)
Evan White (52.5%)
Juan Soto (51.6%)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (50.8%)
Another indicator of White’s ability to produce well-struck balls was a 14.1-percent barrel rate, which placed him twenty-sixth among 257 qualified hitters. In 2020, MLB barreled balls averaged a 104.5-MPH exit velocity producing a .797 AVG and 1.373 wOBA. Moreover, 81.5-percent of all home runs in 2020 were barreled balls.
Obviously, White’s proficiency at creating hard contact would be more beneficial if he put bat-to-ball more often. While his 14.1-percent barrel/batted ball sounds impressive, he had a more pedestrian 6.9-percent barrel/plate appearance ratio that ranked seventy-third in the majors and behind teammates Dylan Moore (8.2%), José Marmolejos (7.8%), and Seager (7.3%). Leading the majors was Fernando Tatís Jr. at 12.5-percent rate.
Other Rookies Had Strikeout Woes
Several other notable freshmen have recorded excessively high strikeout rates in recent years – Joey Gallo (46.3%) of the Rangers in 2015, current Mariner Tom Murphy (45.8%) with the Rockies in 2018, and Javier Báez (41.5%) as a Cub in 2014. Moreover, celebrated Angels prospect Jo Adell (41.7%) struck out as often as White did this year.
Perhaps the most recognizable rookie with a super-high strikeout rate was Aaron Judge. Although he’d be the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year, Judge had a 44.2-percent strikeout rate at the end of the 2016 campaign. That’s the highest strikeout rate ever recorded by a player with 90-plus plate appearances during the final two months of any season. Since then, the Yankees slugger’s strikeout rate hovers around 30-percent.
If you’re wondering why we didn’t discuss the high strikeout rates of Gallo, Murphy, Báez, and Judge earlier, they didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Thanks to COVID-19, White did this season with just 202 plate appearances.
Just for fun, I compared White’s 2020 to the debut years of Judge and Báez. Coincidentally, their stat lines are from the final two months of the season indicated.
Obviously, we’re talking about three completely different players. That said; both Judge and Báez have gone on to be an MVP runner-up after extremely high strikeout rates during their initial debuts. Perhaps knowing this fosters some measure of patience among Mariners fans concerned about White.
Am I predicting White is a future MVP candidate? No, but the achievements of Judge and Báez suggests it’s too early to typecast White.
No History Of Strikeouts Problems
In 2019, there were 686 minor leaguers with 400-plus plate appearances. White’s 23-percent strikeout rate with Class-AA Arkansas ranked 303rd within this group. Furthermore, his overall career MiLB strikeout rate was 20.4-percent – very different from this year.
Considering the large gap between White’s strikeout rates in the majors and minors, let’s review the MLB/MiLB strikeout and walk rates of the high-strikeout rookies we’ve been discussing.
|Evan White|| || || || ||
In every case, players struggling out of the gate eventually improved greatly once they gained MLB experience. With this in mind, please note White and Adell debuted less professional experience than anyone in our group. Each had just over 1,000 MiLB plate appearances prior to reaching the show. Could it be all the duo needs is more time to establish themselves as big-league hitters?
A Respectable Six Weeks
White’s overall offensive production numbers were undeniably bad. The again, he did manage to cobble together an encouraging 30-game span within the season (August 12 – September 21). During this time, his stat line was average-ish.
During White’s decent six weeks, his .468 SLG led the team, while only Lewis (7) had more home runs. Similarly, the AL Rookie of the Year was the only Mariner with a higher wOBA (.337) than White, who also paced Seattle with a 15.1% barrel rate.
Yes, I’m cherry picking. However, 30 games was half the regular season and 55.6-percent of White’s MLB experience. Again, maybe all time is what he needs to prove his value to the team.
The Contract Isn’t A Big Deal
When the Mariners signed White to a six-year/$24 million extension in November 2013, the news caught the attention of the baseball world. Per Baseball Prospectus, the deal was the largest contract awarded to a U.S. player, who hadn’t played above Double-A.
Naturally, the contract received scrutiny from fans, local media members, and several scribes on the national stage. During the season, Jon Heyman of MLB Network mentioned White’s deal in a tweet that riled some Seattle fans.
Evan White is said to be a great kid and he’s obviously a really good defender, but to give $24M to someone who’s only played Double-A and hadn’t proven he could hit a breaking ball was a bit of a risk. He should be OK but is currently batting .114.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) August 15, 2020
Some Mariners fans came to White’s defense by attacking Heyman, although it’s important to note his comments were accurate. The 2017 first round pick was hitting .114 at the time and it’s true signing a player with just four games at Triple-A to a six-year deal is risky. The issue for the Mariners is how much risk the team is actually assuming. I believe the correct answer is not much.
Let’s explore White’s contract through its six guaranteed years and the three club options afterwards. The following illustrates his projected annual salary and the running total throughout the deal. All contract data is courtesy of Sportac.
|* Includes 2026 buyout
** Club option
+ $2 million buyout
++ $1 million buyout
In baseball terms, White’s pro-rated $481,481 salary this year was low. Assuming there’s a full 162-game slate in 2021, he’ll receive $1.3 million. Among the 23 first baseman with guaranteed contracts, White ranks last just behind former teammate Daniel Vogelbach ($1.4 million).
Even at its guaranteed peak in 2025, White’s $8 million salary currently ranks twelfth among his positional peers. Per Sportac, the current average pay for a first baseman next season is $5,826,987. He won’t exceed that threshold until 2024 – not exactly a budget buster. On that note, let’s not forget the Mariners are paying the Mets $3.75 million in each of the next two seasons so Robinson Canó plays in Queens instead of the Emerald City.
Even if White doesn’t develop into a centerpiece on the Mariners’ roster, his salary won’t deter the club from acquiring other major league talent. His paycheck would be a nothing-burger for a serious postseason contender willing to spend up to its market size.
The Mariners expected White to struggle this year and he most certainly did. Perhaps management would’ve dispatched him to Class-AAA Tacoma to re-cage himself, if there had been a minor-league season. That opportunity didn’t exist, so he learned on the job taking his lumps as a major leaguer. Enduring such adversity can potentially be a good thing.
Realistically, White doesn’t have to be great at the plate to be valuable to the Mariners; average would be acceptable. Remember, his 7 DRS led the majors in 2020. Not only that, just two first basemen – Matt Olson (23) and Christian Walker (10) – had a higher combined DRS for the 2019-20 campaigns than White’s tally for this year.
And average is exactly what we saw from White during the 30-game period we discussed. Similar productivity sustained over a full season is all Seattle needs for the Gold Glover to be a foundational piece for the team. Otherwise, he’ll be just another in a long line of Mariner busts at first base.
Personally, I’m banking on White being much better than average next year and that he’ll become a cornerstone player for the Mariners. He hits the ball extremely hard and it’s highly likely his strikeouts drop significantly with additional MLB seasoning. Perhaps, someday, fans will consider Evan White the best first baseman in Mariners franchise history.
After such a turbulent debut, wouldn’t that be something?
My Oh My…
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