Tyler White has already accomplished a hell of a lot for a baseball player, no less a baseball player who wasn’t drafted until the 33rd round. He earned six minor-league promotions in just three years. He hit .311/.422/.489 across those six stops — a surefire way to quickly climb the organizational ladder. He was invited to the Houston Astros’ big-league camp, where he hit .348/.446/.543, and at the end of it all, he was handed the Opening Day job as the team’s first baseman, and why wouldn’t he?
It was somewhat of a surprise, given White having never played in the majors, and the Astros’ status as a contender, and Jon Singleton having been the favorite throughout the winter, but White outplayed Singleton, and frankly, White’s outplayed Singleton every step of the way.
So a 25-year-old rookie is now the starting first baseman on a team many consider to be the best in the American League, and expectations, naturally, are high. It doesn’t take much more than a quick perusal of #AstrosTwitter to see the hype surrounding White. Many feel he’s the long-term answer at first base for a team who gave 47 starts to Luis Valbuena and Marwin Gonzalez there in the midst of a playoff run last season. Some are calling for Rookie of the Year. Someone I spoke with recently loosely compared him to Paul Goldschmidt, if not only as late-round first basemen who were slept on during their ascent through the minor leagues, despite doing nothing but crushing every level at which they played.
And it’s true — White has been slept on. Even this year, a year after putting up a .467 on-base percentage and 178 wRC+ at Triple-A, he didn’t make a single top-100 prospect list. Not at MLB, not at ESPN, not at Baseball America, not at BaseballProspectus. Our own Dan Farnsworth was higher on White than any other prospect evaluator this offseason, and even Farnsworth’s bullishness pegged White as the sixth-best prospect in the system.
Mostly, it has to do with the position. White came up as a third baseman, but has since been moved to first and may even be better suited as a designated hitter. He offers little in the way of speed, and without any value coming from the field or the bases, the bat’s got to be elite for him to have value as a prospect. His career minor-league wRC+ is 157, which sure hints at an elite bat — for reference, Goldschmidt’s was 163 — but what makes White such a compelling case, beyond the production defying his late-round draft status, is his offensive profile.
See, White’s overall production in the minors has mirrored that of a slugging first baseman, but the way he goes about that production has not. More specifically: for a first baseman, he doesn’t have much in the way of power. Instead, he derives his offensive value from a remarkable ability to control the strike zone; in the minors, he’s walked 174 times and struck out 164 times. Yes, that’s more walks than strikeouts across more than 1,200 plate appearances.
White is intriguing due in part not only to his career trajectory, but also his profile. Both seem nearly unprecedented, and so in cases like these, when we begin treading into unfamiliar territory, it only makes sense to gain context by means of historical perspective.
Here’s how we can do this. White’s got major-league projections, based off his minor-league numbers, age, and profile — the things we’ve already discussed. Using his projected walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated power and overall production, we can find other first basemen who had similar offensive profiles upon entering the league. From there, we can see what those players went on to do with their careers to gain a better understanding of Tyler White.
To adjust for changes in the run environment, I used league-adjusted walk, strikeout, and isolated-power figures, though they’re displayed in raw form in the table. Speaking of that table:
This table is just a big bucket of cold water dumped on the flames of any Tyler White hype.
Yonder Alonso is White’s top comp, and not only has Alonso largely been considered a bust, but Alonso also had considerably higher prospect status than White at the time of his debut. Daric Barton, Conor Jackson, Dan Johnson, and Justin Smoak, the latter of whom Dave Cameron invoked as a comp for White a few weeks back, all either were or have been average or below-average hitters since the time of their debut. As a whole, this group of White’s 10 closest rookie comps debuted with a 109 wRC+, and as a whole, the group went on to post a 111 wRC+ in the seasons after their debuts.
The success stories here are found in Matt Carpenter, Lucas Duda, and Nick Johnson, who despite having a disappointing career due to his laundry list of injuries, was always a good hitter. Carpenter and Duda, though, also had far and away the best rookie-season debuts, debuts that far exceeded White’s projected production this year.
I did tack on one extra column of note to the end of that table, though, and it could be an important one. You’ll see that the group’s minor-league wRC+ was 129, while White’s has been an eye-popping 161. So maybe even these comps aren’t a perfect fit. I asked ZiPS headmaster Dan Szymborski about White’s somewhat pessimistic projection of a 99 wRC+, relative to his minor-league numbers, and Szymborski had three pointers:
- White has been very old for his levels. When he ran a 142 wRC+ at High-A — the only season he’s posted an isolated-power mark above .200 — he was already 23 years old.
- White’s minor-league BABIPs — last year’s .412 mark at Triple-A in particular — aren’t supported by the minor-league batted-ball data to which Szymborski has access.
- ZiPS sees guys like Alonso, Barton and Smoak, who had similar minor-league profiles, and remembers that these high-walk, low-power first baseman have struggled to stick at the major-league level, and that influences White’s own projection.
The key here is the power. If you expand the comp exercise beyond first baseman, you see this type of profile is one also shared by guys like Russell Martin, Denard Span, Mark Ellis and Dexter Fowler, all of whom either had or are still having long, successful big-league careers. But those players can offer defensive and base-running value, and so a lesser bat can play. At first base, White’s power, and by proxy Alonso’s power, and Barton’s power, and Johnson’s power, and for the most part Smoak’s power, haven’t been able to play. At first base, just controlling the strike zone typically isn’t enough to cut it.
For White to have a successful career as an average-or-better everyday first baseman, it feels like he’s going to have to add some power, like Carpenter did last year. White stands at just 5-foot-11, which may not bode well for a future power spike, but at the very least, he’s cognizant of the fact that a bit more power could go a long way to his game. Here’s a story by Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle from earlier this month in which White talks about focusing on hitting high fastballs and putting the ball in the air more, in hopes of tapping into extra power.
For the most part, White’s comps aren’t super inspiring. Maybe they don’t need to be. More than likely, he’s just a couple-month placeholder until A.J. Reed, actually a top prospect, makes his debut and pushes White out of the way. The fact that the Astros of all teams are willing to start White’s clock a year early should provide a hint as to what the organization’s long-term evaluation of him looks like. From this one method of evaluating things, it looks like a good major-league hitter, just maybe not for a first baseman, and one whose approach works better in the minors without additional power. Then again, the next time he fails to exceed expectations with the bat will be the first.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.