A Conversation With Forrest Whitley, Who Feels That Right Now Is the Right Time

Forrest Whitley has slid precipitously in the rankings. A helium-filled No. 4 in 2019, the 23-year-old right-hander fell to No. 15 on last year’s FanGraphs Top 100 Prospects list, and has now slid out of the top 100 altogether. When Eric Longenhagen released our 2021 list on Wednesday, Whitley — “as enigmatic as any pitcher in the minors” — was on the outside looking in, coming in at an after-the-fact No. 106 as a 50 FV prospect.

He’s hell-bent on proving any, and all, doubters wrong. Following an offseason where he worked diligently to fine-tune both his physique and his repertoire, Whitley is in camp with the Houston Astros looking to show that the earlier hype wasn’t misplaced. A first-round pick in the 2016 draft, he’s now aiming to emerge as a front-line starter at baseball’s highest level.

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David Laurila: Let’s start with your height and weight. Where are you at right now?

Forrest Whitley: “I’m 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds.

Laurila: That’s low for you, right?

Whitley: “Compared to where I was the last couple years, it would be considered low. But I’ve experimented a lot, in many different ways. This is where I feel the most comfortable.”

Laurila: By “most comfortable,” I assume you’re referring primarily to being able to repeat your mechanics.

Whitley: “Yes. I feel like I have a lot more stability and body control, which plays a premium at my size. It’s definitely been a grind to get consistent mechanics down, and I think a lot of that had to do with strengthening all parts of my body, because there’s a lot more surface area to me than most guys. Hammering down all those areas was pretty much my main focus this offseason — getting everything as stable as possible. From the many bullpens I threw before I came here [to spring training] it seems to be paying off.”

Laurila: Was that part of your pitcher plan, or was it more self-driven?

Whitley: “Everything I’ve done since I’ve been with the Astros has been pretty much been self-driven. I haven’t had much outside influence. I’m pretty stubborn. I don’t always like to listen to people.”

Laurila: That can be a positive at times, but it can also get you in trouble…

Whitley: “For sure. I mean, it definitely does get me in trouble a little bit. Like not listening to some usage stuff. But you learn from it, right?

Laurila: Trevor Bauer comes to mind. He got pushback early in his career, and doing things his way on the field has worked out pretty well.

Whitley: “He did a really good job of sticking to his guns, and doing what he knew worked for him. He knows himself. He’s a smart guy, super cerebral. From the small conversations I’ve had with Trevor, I was very impressed with his knowledge and his persistence.”

Laurila: What about your own stubbornness? What needs to be just so?

Whitley: “Right now I’d say it’s staying on top of the soft tissue, diet maintenance, and sleep. I need to have a good area to sleep and get rest, otherwise I’m not going to be worth crap the next day. So I’m just unbelievably stubborn about where I stay — what kind of bed I sleep in, the temperature, the light.

“The soft tissue maintenance is also something I’m being super stubborn about. When somebody says that I don’t really even need the soft tissue because I’m hyper mobile… I mean, I need the fascia breakdown, just so I don’t have that accumulated stress on my tricep and forearm. Staying on top of those things has made a big difference, health and feel-wise, over the last six to 12 months.”

Laurila: Being particular about sleep habits isn’t exactly conducive to the minor-league lifestyle.

Whitley: “For sure. But back when I was 20 years old, I didn’t give a shit. I’d sleep for four hours on the bus, pitch the next day and feel fine. But now… I hate saying 23 is getting up there, but I am older than I used to be. There’s more wear-and-tear on my body than there was a few years ago. Now I’m making sure that I’m doing everything I possibly can to stay healthy and perform the best.”

Laurila: You have dealt with some minor health issues…

Whitley: “Yeah, and that’s been super annoying. It’s been nothing big — just small things here and there that keep me out for four to six weeks — and when it’s this many times, it gets pretty irritating. But it’s also a big learning process for me, figuring out how to take the steps necessary to make it better. Before, when I would feel something I’d kind of panic and freak out. Now, when I feel something it’s just, ‘Alright, let’s hammer this down. Let’s figure out what it is, and let’s get past it.”

Laurila: What is your health situation right now?

Whitley: “Everything is fine. I didn’t had any hiccups this offseason, and that’s really exciting for me. Again, I did everything I could to translate to having the healthiest season possible. It goes without saying that this season is super, super, important for me.”

Laurila: It’s probably fair to say that there are people starting to doubt you.

Whitley: “Yeah, I mean, at this point there has just been too much fucking around on my end. But I know that I’ve made steady improvements. Even in 2019, my worst year… and then in 2020, nobody saw it, but I was throwing extremely well in summer camp. Unfortunately, that ended with me straining my forearm. But I threw really solid, competitive innings against good hitters.”

Laurila: Where was your velocity last summer?

Whitley: “It was anywhere between 94 and 98 [mph]. I think I got up to 99 one time, but I hovered mainly around 95-96.”

Laurila: Do you know what your spin rate and spin efficiency were?

Whitley: “I know my fastball hangs around 98-100% efficiency, and I think my average spin rate was somewhere just south of 2,600 [rpm]. I did get one up to 3,000 though, and that was pretty sick.”

Laurila: Is working up in the zone with your four-seamer a big part of your approach?

Whitley: “You know, what’s funny is that I completely changed my philosophy and started going down in the zone. I started throwing these low-hoppers that guys were taking. I did it unintentionally at first. Then I was like, ‘Shit, if I just aim low on the zone, they’re not going to swing because they think it’s going to be in the dirt’. So I started doing that and got ‘take, take.’ Then it was 0-2 and ‘OK, I can do whatever I want from here.’”

Laurila: Working down with your heater can also benefit your changeup.

Whitley: “Absolutely. And the shape on my change is pretty unique. It’s one of those changes where if I sequence properly, I could throw it right down the middle at 83 and they’d swing right over it.”

Laurila: How is it shaped?

Whitley: “It’s got a strange amount of vertical break. I’ll sometimes get upwards of 18-19 inches of vertical, and then I’ll have somewhere between 15 -17 of horizontal. It’s a four-seam changeup, and from what I’ve been told, it spins so similar to my four-seam [fastball] that you can’t tell out of the hand. And I spin my changeup extremely fast. I think I sit somewhere between 2,400-2,500 rpm with my changeup, but that’s kind of my goal with it. I try to really get on the side of it, and get good sidespin on it.”

Laurila: That sounds not unlike Grayson Rodriguez’s changeup, which has screwball-type action to it.

Whitley: “I’ve definitely had some reps with it that looked like a screwball. But for the most part, it’s kind of that 45-degree spin.”

Laurila: Is it a standard four-seam grip?

Whitley: Not really. I used to grip it on the seam, but… do you know who Jacob Nix is? He’s with the Padres, and I was playing catch with him. He throws a very similar changeup, grip-wise, and I started moving off the seam, just on the belly of the leather. That made it so much easier for me to manipulate the pitch how I wanted to, because I wasn’t bound to the seam. I have the full surface area of the ball to kind of do whatever with it. That made it a ton easier for me to get side spin.”

Forrest Whitley’s changeup grip.

Laurila: I’ve read that your changeup wasn’t good in 2019. Why was that?

Whitley: “I was throwing it way too hard, and not throwing it enough. I had a big velocity uptick in 2019, and that translated to all of my pitches. I also got really fastball happy, because I was seeing these big numbers. I wasn’t focused enough on the changeup, so it was coming out at 87-90. I need my changeup to be sub-86 with sidespin to be effective. Ideally it would be 83-84, but that might be asking a little too much.”

Laurila: What about your curveball?

Forrest Whitley’s curveball grip.

Whitley: “I didn’t throw it a ton in summer camp, but it sat around 80-83. And I actually have a a different goal for it this year. I’m going to really try to rip that pitch, to throw it as hard as I can. I’m not throwing a slider anymore — I’ve completely bought in on the cutter — so I’m going try to turn my curveball into a [Shane] Bieber curveball. I want it like 85-88, real sharp, maybe a two-plane break. More of a power curveball, as opposed to the high-spin bender that I’d been throwing.”

Laurila: Presumably the organization is on board with that? I’m sure you’re throwing in front of a Rapsodo quite a bit.

Whitley: “Mostly TrackMan. That’s been every bullpen since I’ve been drafted. As a matter fact I feel very naked when I throw a bullpen without a TrackMan or a Rapsodo. I’m kind of like, ‘What’s the point?’ But yeah, going back to your question, they’re pretty bought in. They love hard breaking balls with high spin. The harder it is, the better the curveball. I guess you could say it will be a comparable curveball to what Lance McCullers was throwing a few years ago.”

Laurila: Do you talk pitching with the older guys in the organization quite a bit?

Whitley: “Not so much. For instance, I don’t like to talk to [Justin] Verlander, because he’s an alien. Everything he does is just out of this world, so I don’t try to emulate that too much. I did really enjoyed Gerrit Cole’s process when he was with the Astros in 2019. I still do some of the stuff he did, but as far as the pitching side goes, I mostly like it to be self-driven.”

Laurila: You said that you’ve really bought into the cutter. Why is that?

Whitley: “If you look at it on TrackMan — if you look at the shape — it doesn’t look like an exceptional pitch… maybe besides the spin; it it does spin really high. But the response I get from hitters, and from my throwing partners, is usually along the lines of, ‘You should throw that pitch 60% of the time.’ So that’s kind of what I’m going to do. I want to throw a healthy mix of fastballs, cutters, and changeups — kind of copying [Jacob] deGrom’s usage.”

Laurila: What are you thinking in terms of percentages?

Whitley: “I’d like to hang around 40% fastballs, 30% cutters, 25% changeups, and 5% curveballs.”

Laurila: Let’s close with where you are in your career. Like you said earlier, this is a big year for you.

Whitley: “Yes. I guess the biggest thing for me this offseason was throwing strikes, and good strikes. I think I did a really good job of doing that. For a while, I was so concerned about making my stuff nasty. I had a Trackman there, and I just wanted to spin it the hardest, I wanted to throw it the hardest. I didn’t really give a shit about where it was going; I figured it would kind of even itself out in the game.

“These last couple of years, where I was starting to struggle, my bullpens were just so unfocused. I just wasn’t doing a good job of compartmentalizing everything that I needed to do to become a better pitcher. So starting in summer camp… after spring training 2020, really. That’s because in spring training, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. It’s really hard for me to watch video of that, because of how much I was sucking. It was really embarrassing. So I went back to the chalk board during that first lockdown and told myself, ‘Where was I at when I was at my best?’ I was 30 pounds lighter, so I lost the weight and got more athletic. I got leaner. I started moving better. That resulted in more strikes, just because of how much better I was moving my body. I think that’s going to really pay off for me this year.

“It’s kind of a weird situation for me. These last few years, being as highly regarded a prospect as I was, and having a lot of failure… it sucked a lot. But it also allowed me to sit back and really internalize everything that had happened. And those years went by so fast. I felt like I was working hard — I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong — but once I had the time to go back and reflect, I was like, ‘Wow. What the hell was I doing for the last year and a half?’ I wasn’t doing anything to better my mechanics. I just thought I had it.”

Laurila: It sounds like you’ve matured. At age 23, you’re figuring things out just as people are starting to question whether you’re ever going to live up to expectations.

Whitley: “People can say what they want about the last couple years, how I dropped off and everything. It’s confusing for me to read all this stuff, because I’ve worked hard to get to the big leagues. When I hear stuff like, ‘He’s not as good as he used to be’… I mean, I know that I’ve done things to get better as a pitcher. It’s just a matter of putting it together at the right time. And I truly believe that right now is the right time.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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tz
Member

Great interview David! Good reminder that 20-21 year olds don’t always come with fully developed maturity and wisdom (Lord knows I didn’t). Whitley still has time to put it all together.

martyvan90
Member
martyvan90

Another great interview!!! I wasn’t crazy about the vulgarities but it’s the Pat McAfee era… The stubbornness thing, in the context he provided, bothered me less. He seems to be in turn with his body, and who better than him to make those decisions? I wonder how teammates see and will see him- how he performs will be the biggest factor… Definitely an interesting cat.