Across the Seams: White’s the Deal?

Steve Alliston explores how the Evan White signing by the Seattle Mariners exposes a gap in stats used by fantasy owners for projecting minor league hitters.

When the Seattle MarinersEvan White was first announced in late November, and the figures were made public ($24 million guaranteed over six years of team control, plus three option years), a lot of people didn’t like the deal. I was in the same boat, but on the other side—all by myself, hollering into the gale about the Mariners as usual, because I didn’t like the deal from the team’s side.

My problem stemmed from my belief about White as a prospect, which has never been that high. As a first base prospect, White is already in a tough place. With only DH lower on the defensive spectrum, the need to provide value with his bat is very high. And if that offensive value isn’t visible early on, a first base prospect is at risk of never getting much of a look in the big leagues. White’s bat has not been at that level.

At age 23, he reached Double-A. That’s neither young nor old for the league. Which is a problem. You like to see an advanced hitting prospect at a corner defensive position be able to compete in Double-A by age 21 or 22 to maintain strong prospect status. White was OK in High-A ball at 22, resulting in a slash of .303/.375/.458 and a lackluster ISO of just .155. But to White’s credit, that was his first season of pro baseball, and it makes sense not to rush a college player straight to Double-A.

In 2019, White had done enough to earn his promotion to Double-A, and there his production for a first baseman was…fine. Slashing .293/.350/.488, he showed improved power with a .195 ISO in what is reportedly a home run-suppressing park at Arkansas. This is a decent line, and a player’s first cut at Double-A is sometimes cited as a predictor of the player’s performance at the big league level.

But again, it comes as a 23-year-old and is good, but not stellar. And my concerns only grow with a look at the underlying stats. They are…fine. Just…OK. White’s walk rate was passable at 7.3%. He had an OK strikeout rate of 23%. He had adequate power with a .195 ISO. His batting average and OBP were good, but probably BABIP-inflated.

My concern with White is mainly about his strikeout rate. If White is merely adequate at avoiding the strikeout at Double-A, it could indicate serious K problems in the major leagues. That K% could easily go up as he is promoted and has to face a quality of pitcher he has never encountered before. A 23% strikeout rate isn’t a huge red flag. It’s like one of those little tabletop flags with a number you get at a restaurant. Plainly visible, but not distracting.

But it’s a big enough concern that I want more information. There is no benefit for the team in making a commitment when the player has six full years of team control to determine if the player will live up to expectations. Even a modest commitment to a player who busts could needlessly make dollars unavailable to sign more useful pieces in future seasons. And with Austin Nola putting up very similar numbers in Seattle to White’s season in Double-A, and having four years of control left…the team already had the midrange outcome for White at a bargain price. Also, Nola was acquired off waivers, strongly suggesting that this type of player is not expensive to obtain.

To me the signing looked like a low-risk, high-reward deal that could just as easily have been a no-risk, high-reward non-deal. It’s not the end of the world, but there was no need to commit anything to essentially get the same benefit.

The team obviously did not agree with this assessment. The Mariners are placing their bet that White will be worth around a half-game above replacement for all six years of team control—starting in 2020—for a total of about 3 WAR. That’s a pretty good bet, to be fair. White, on the other hand, is giving up a lot of potential money over his first free-agent years to insure against himself busting. The Mariners are banking on his high floor, and White seems implicitly to be betting on his own low ceiling—which does seem kind of sad.

So why does the team feel differently about White’s risk than I do? From the way every team ever has felt about its own Double-A prospects? The answer is advanced batted-ball data. Teams have it. We don’t. Teams in the past didn’t either.

Along with traditional scouting information that the clubs have always had an advantage in, now they have a lock on some of the most advanced statistical data in the sport such as exit velocity and launch angle and barrel rate. Until this data for minor league players becomes public, we in the prospecting business are going to be behind the teams (well, the smart ones at least) in evaluating young hitters.

The result might be more cases like this, where you just can’t see why a team would push a player up so fast based on his stats and even the scouting information available. What this means to me is that we need to try to trust the teams more if they appear to be relying on that information. The Mariners have stated they like White’s exit velocity as a sign of power potential. As both a fan and a fantasy player, can I rely on that assessment as coming from reliable data? For now I would say it’s not a terrible bet.

In the meantime, one statistical resource we are starting to get is average fly-ball distance for minor leaguers. I found it on Minor Graphs, but it may be elsewhere as well. White’s average fly-ball distance was 308.1 feet. That doesn’t put him in elite territory, but his home Double-A park was just about the worst for home runs in its league, so maybe credit White with a couple of extra feet. That’s pretty good. Combined with the team stating it likes White’s exit velocity, I think that’s enough to believe the power will come for White.

But that doesn’t allay my concern about strikeouts. Especially on his initial call-up, I expect White to struggle and his K rate to balloon up around 30% for a month or two. Whether he adjusts or not is something I’ll be waiting to see as a fantasy owner. Since he’s going straight to the big club, he’ll be skipping Triple-A where we could see how well he makes contact against more advanced pitching. And where he could hit using the better ball so we could evaluate his power. Why the team doesn’t want the same benefit before committing cash and a 40-man spot…I don’t know.

White is going to start the season at first base. You’ll be able to grab him with your last pick in the draft if you want. Be warned that T-Mobile Park is murder on right-handed power…but White might still be a value pick as late as he’ll go if you can stash him to start the year. And if they do move him around to other positions, he might have some nice positional flexibility. He’ll also get a long look even if he starts slowly—the Mariners have no plans to contend.

Even though I am still skeptical of the commitment the team made, and the need for it, based on Seattle’s expressed reasoning and the data we have, I may bet a very low pick on White this season…just in case.

(Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)

Stephen Alliston

Steve studied Philosophy and Religion, worked on a lot of Halo games, and is a fan of the Seattle Mariners. He enjoys fantasy baseball and games in general. He secretly ran a Mariners-focused blog that literally nobody read, but has come out of hiding to join Pitcher List.

One response to “Across the Seams: White’s the Deal?”

  1. theKraken says:

    I would imagine that the answer is actually the opposite of batted ball data. They have real eyes on him every day and they know exactly how things are developing and what is happening. I find the idea laughable that the people who see him hit on a daily basis need a computer readout to identify what is happening. To the contrary, I think that kind of “scouting” is a step backwards as it solely focuses on results. If you are focusing on results over process, then you are doing player development wrong. Just look at the big leagues – there are not a bunch of guys succeeding because of batted ball data. People come up with applications for that batted ball data all the time but it doesn’t predict success any better than OPS or any other traditional metric. In fact, the Statcast breakouts almost always regress right back. When was the last time FanGraphs nailed a batted ball fueled breakout? I am not aware of one. That line of thinking for prospects is regressive. I have a feeling that without juiced baseballs the term launch angle doesn’t even exist. Consider that the “showcase circuit” kids are a very busty demographic and those are certainly the kids with the Trackman data. It has never been difficult to identify who hits the ball hard or who makes a lot of weak contact. I just don’t think the data is as useful as would be convenient for all the parasites that want to cash in on the players’ hard-earned success.

    The real problem with committing money to a completely unproven guy is that his job is now locked in. I could care less about the wealthy owners finances, but SEA is now committed to White. They won’t be open to FA acquisitions and if he struggles they are going to stick with him. It also just doesn’t seem fair to every other player in the organization looking to earn a spot. These kind of deals make me queasy as it just isn’t a good way to run an organization. Hoping for the best case scenario isn’t a plan at all! What if they just locked up a highly replaceable player for 5 years? That is OK from an accounting perspective, but from a baseball perspective its gross. It kind of makes me wonder if it is just a slightly more palatable form of tanking. Now they can say they are spending money even though it will always be less than what they would spend in FA and it isn’t a simple churn of pre-arb players. Unfortunately, along with the juiced ball, we are also in the tanking era and teams are not making baseball decisions very often. That extra level of “secret data” helps to maintain a narrative that there is baseball logic behind the decisions… Sabermetrics are like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Nobody has ever seen them and they are all powerful.

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