SEATTLE – The comment came on an otherwise menial day during the middle of the Mariners’ 2018 spring training.
On that warm morning on the main practice field, the group of players scheduled to appear in that afternoon’s Cactus League game went through a typical pregame workout.
The fans in the stands and lining the fences around the field likely didn’t notice what was happening at first base, where three men were fielding ground balls.
With projected starting first baseman Ryon Healy recovering from surgery on his hand, the Mariners were trying to figure out whether Daniel Vogelbach or Rule 5 draft pick Mike Ford could fill in at first. Both players resembled beer-league softball players in their build, their agility and their defensive skills.
The third person in that group was a fresh-faced Evan White, who was 21 and looked even younger. The Mariners’ first-round pick in 2017, White wasn’t officially in big-league camp. But he was on the game roster for that day and came over from minor-league camp to participate in the pregame workout.
The juxtaposition in ability was stark. Vogelbach and Ford looked lumbering and uncomfortable on even routine ground balls, while the silky-smooth White made everything look easy and clean. He was athletic and mobile.
The differences grew more distinct as they turned double plays.
As a standout at the University of Kentucky, White’s defense and athleticism were always prominent and projectable. But the question, before and after he was drafted, was whether he’d hit at a level commensurate for an MLB first baseman.
As the defensive drills continued and comments about the Mariners’ first-base situation became a topic with GM Jerry Dipoto within earshot, a veteran observer finally said aloud what many were thinking:
“I don’t know if Evan White can hit or not, but I’d start him at first base right now because at least you’ll know he will catch everything, and that matters.”
Following his rookie season, that statement still applies.
Looking back at 2020: Before he’d ever fielded a ground ball or had a big-league plate appearance, the Mariners rewarded White with an MLB contract extension. On Nov. 26 last year, the team announced White had signed a six-year, $24 million contract with three option years, basically giving him the starting first base job for the 2020 season.
It was a surprising move, considering White hadn’t played in the major leagues and spent the entire 2019 season at Class AA. But the organization felt White – the person and the player – was a core piece of the rebuild and wanted to lock him up.
“In Evan’s case, that’s the separator for us,” Dipoto said at the news conference. “The quality of the human being. The way he treats his teammates. The leadership qualities he embodies. They are all extraordinary.”
The financial investment wasn’t drastic and the contract, if White reached his potential, would be club-friendly.
“Of the players that have come through our system, so many have shown growth, so many have shown high character, but few have shown all that, plus the maturity and advanced leadership that Evan has shown,” Dipoto said. “And he does it without being the loudest guy in the room. He does it by being the most- respected guy in the room.”
On the day of the signing, Dipoto said White wasn’t guaranteed to be the starting first baseman. But when Omar Narvaez was traded and Austin Nola was moved to the backup-catcher role before spring training, it was clear the job belonged to White.
After baseball was shut down because of the coronavirus, and a 60-game schedule with no minor-league season was decided upon, the Mariners made it clear they would stick with White regardless of his results at the plate.
White pushed the limits of Dipoto’s decision, struggling at the plate for an extended period, striking out at an alarming rate. But his defense was beyond outstanding, and the need for him to get at-bats was so vital he stayed in the lineup on a daily basis.
On July 27 at Minute Maid Park, White crushed his first MLB homer off Houston’s Josh James – a 418-foot missile with a 107-mph exit velocity.
But it wasn’t the start of a hot streak. Over his next 18 games, he had five hits in 66 plate appearances and 28 strikeouts.
In a normal scenario, White would’ve almost certainly been optioned to Class AAA Tacoma to refine his swing and confidence. But with no minor-league season, the Mariners kept playing him.
“It was a really rugged start for Evan White,” Dipoto said at the end of the season. “From about the middle of August or the third week of August, to the third week of September, he was excellent. He found a way to pull himself out of out of the hole he was in, but his numbers were never going to look good, based on how poorly he started and the general length of the season.”
That “excellent” period saw White post a .235/.316/.447 slash line (batting average/on-base percentage, slugging percentage) in 26 games with 20 hits in 95 plate appearances. He had five homers, 18 RBI, 10 walks and 35 strikeouts in that span.
He finished the season with a .176/.252/.346 slash line in 202 plate appearances, with eight homers, 26 RBI, 18 walks and 84 strikeouts.
“From the offensive side, I think the biggest thing was really just my (swing) load and getting in more consistent positions,” White said at the end of the season. “I didn’t do that this year. I really felt like I kind of lost who I was at the plate.”
The massive amount of strikeouts almost drove the ultra-polite White to cursing in an interview when asked if he’d ever struck out so much.
“Oh, heck no,” he said. “It’s definitely frustrating anytime you strike out, but especially the way I was doing it where I felt like I was in a good mental spot. There were some cases where I put myself in tough situations and end up taking a pitch right down the middle, because I’m thinking way too much. But when I see fastball right there, I see a pitch I feel like I can at least put the ball in play to help the ballclub out, and I swing and miss, it’s definitely frustrating.
“It’s kind of like, ‘What’s going on here? How do I fix this?’ Honestly, I wasn’t able to do a great job of fixing it on the fly. It’s definitely something I’m gonna look back on and wish I could have changed.”
But the Mariners don’t seem overly concerned. They knew he’d struggle at times like all rookies.
“What we’ve seen out of Evan this year has been some ups, some downs, it’s been very streaky at times,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said during the season. “It’s been very common in what young players typically go through.”
While the Mariners won’t share internal data that makes them optimistic about White’s projection at the plate, a look at his Statcast and swing discipline numbers offer encouraging metrics.
When White did hit the ball, he hit it harder than the average player. Of the 99 batted balls in play, 52.5% had exit velocities of 95 mph, considered a hard-hit ball. That percentage was among the top 5% in MLB. His average exit velocity of 91.7 mph was the highest on the Mariners.
Looking at the plate discipline numbers on FanGraphs, White swung at 28.5% of pitches out of the strike zone (O-Swing). The league average O-Swing percentage in 2019 was 31.6. His Z-Swing percentage (pitches in the strike zone) was 63.5%, while the league average in 2019 was 68.5%. White swung at 43.8% of pitches seen; the 2019 league average of 47%.
The concerns about the offense shouldn’t overshadow White’s defense, which won him a Gold Glove. He was absolutely brilliant at first base.
White led American League first basemen in defensive runs saved (DRS) with seven and in “scoops” – a metric that measures outs saved from wayward throws – also with seven.
He ended the season with 49 consecutive games without an error.
“There was a lot of stuff jam- packed into a short period of time, while learning through the good and the bad, and a lot more bad time than I would have liked from the offensive side, for sure,” White said. “But you have something to learn from, to be able to grow from.”
Offseason focus: White plans to work on his hitting and find consistency with his swing load and direction at the plate. He has had multiple meetings with hitting coach Tim Laker and assistant hitting coach Jarrett DeHart.
While he tried to focus on driving the ball to right-center, his natural power, he wasn’t able to do that because of the inconsistencies with that swing load and not being in the proper position.
“I physically wasn’t allowing myself to execute that plan,” he said.
A few years ago, he decided to make Arizona his permanent home, which allows him to go to the Mariners complex in Peoria on a daily basis to work out with strength coach James Clifford and utilize the high-tech facility.
He has been back in the weight room for a month, working hard to add mass. After being drafted at 195 pounds, White started last season at 225 and lost about 10 pounds during the season. His goal is to get to 230-235 pounds before spring training and maintain that weight during the season. He believes the added muscle won’t sap him of athleticism or agility but will add to his power.
Dipoto noted that any outside concerns about White having enough power at the plate should’ve been allayed.
But White has never profiled as an all-or-nothing hitter. The Mariners view White as a hitter who should stay in the .260-.275 batting-average range based on his swing, his past numbers and his approach.
A look ahead to 2021: Even if the surface numbers were ugly, the Mariners believe this season was beneficial for White. They don’t think he’s the sort of player that would react impulsively or negatively to the struggles and do something drastic. He’s too disciplined and driven.
With his contract, the Mariners made him their first baseman of the future. They believe it was a savvy investment.
But it goes back to that wry observation a few years ago:
“I don’t know if Evan White can hit or not, but I’d start him at first base right now because at least you’ll know he will catch everything and that matters.”
We know White will catch everything. He’s proven it.
But the hitting?
“I’m confident in being able to handle the big league pitching,” he said. “I think it’s just getting back to being myself. Obviously, you are still gonna strike out, you’re gonna have the struggles. These pitchers are there for a reason. They make good pitches. But at the end of the day, I’m confident in being able to make those adjustments and being the best hitter that I can be in this league.”
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