Tyler White Already Looks For Real

Possible headline from 2013: Tyler White Is Mashing

Possible headline from 2014: Tyler White Is Mashing

Possible headline from 2015: Tyler White Is Mashing

Possible headline from right now: Tyler White Is Mashing

The best rookie hitter in baseball this year has not been Trevor Story. The best rookie hitter in baseball this year has been Tyler White, by nearly 60 points of wRC+ over Story. Maybe you haven’t heard about him as much because his last name doesn’t make for a convenient headline, but it’s happened. Tyler White is mashing, just like he has at every single level at which he’s played.

Despite that, less than a month ago, right before the start of the regular season, I wrote a post tossing some cold water on the White hype train after he’d won the Astros’ first-base job out of Spring Training. It’s not that I didn’t want to believe White could continue his mashing ways. I naively want to believe every player can succeed. It’s just that I’d found some historical precedent that compelled me to believe White’s skill set wouldn’t do a great job translating.

A brief recap of the aforementioned post: White is a first baseman, one who has typically relied moreso on controlling the strike zone for his minor-league success rather than hitting for great power. To determine the implications of that sort of profile, I looked at the historical precedent of first baseman who entered the league with plus walk and strikeout rates but below-average power, and found that those types of guys typically have had trouble translating. It’s a skillset that’s fine for a player who offers defensive and base-running value, but without more pop, these types of guys have had trouble sticking at first base at the major-league level. The article concluded as such:

From this one method of evaluating things, he 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.

Well. He’s exceeding expectations again. And it’s because he’s hitting for power. In 15 career major-league games, White’s already hit five homers, after having never hit more than eight at any one minor-league level, or more than 15 in any one minor-league season. His .380 isolated slugging percentage is top-five in baseball.

Now, of course, it’s been two weeks. You’ve already had that thought at least three times while reading this article. The projections already view White a bit differently, but, because it’s only been two weeks, not too differently. ZiPS has bumped his estimated true-talent ISO from .130 to .151. Steamer went from .149 to .156. The rest-of-season projections haven’t changed drastically, but the rest-of-season projections are never going to change too drastically after just two weeks. What has changed drastically is the updated projections.

We can’t take away what White has done. He has hit five homers. He has run a .380 ISO through his first 57 major-league plate appearance. He does have an OBP above .400. And those facts, coupled with his slightly more rosy rest-of-season projections, make for an updated end-of-season forecast that looks quite a bit different than the one I used to find comparisons for him a month ago. It’s worth re-running the comparison test, now that White’s been one of the three best hitters in baseball for the first two weeks of the season. What do Tyler White’s rookie first baseman comps look like now?

Tyler White’s Updated 10 Closest Rookie Comps
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG ISO BB% K% BABIP wRC+ WAR
Joey Votto 589 24 .297 .368 .506 .209 10.0% 17.3% .328 124 3.6
Matt Carpenter 340 6 .294 .365 .463 .169 10.0% 18.5% .346 124 1.5
Lucas Duda 347 10 .292 .370 .482 .189 9.5% 16.4% .326 136 0.8
Prince Fielder 648 28 .271 .347 .483 .213 9.1% 19.3% .297 110 0.7
Eric Valent 300 13 .267 .337 .481 .215 9.3% 20.3% .299 110 0.4
Chris Shelton 431 18 .299 .360 .510 .211 7.9% 20.2% .341 132 2.5
Ike Davis 601 19 .264 .351 .440 .176 12.0% 23.0% .321 116 2.9
Justin Bour 446 23 .262 .321 .479 .218 7.6% 22.6% .294 117 0.3
Todd Frazier 465 19 .273 .331 .498 .225 7.7% 22.2% .316 121 2.6
Freddie Freeman 635 21 .282 .346 .448 .166 8.3% 22.4% .339 120 0.6
AVERAGE 480 18 .280 .350 .479 .199 9.1% 20.2% .321 121 1.6
White (updated proj.) 381 15 .277 .356 .471 .194 10.0% 21.0% .324 127 1.4
SOURCE: Steamer projections
-Player pool includes: rookie first basemen since 2000
-Minimum 300 plate appearances in rookie year
-Comps based on: z-scores of league-adjusted BB%, K%, ISO, and wRC+

Less than a month ago, White’s three closest comps were Yonder Alonso, Conor Jackson and Clint Robinson. Suddenly, it’s rookie year Joey Votto, Matt Carpenter and Lucas Duda. I know we often preach not to put too much stock into small samples, but when a rookie comes out and hits like Bryce Harper for two weeks to begin a career, expectations can shift quickly.

Especially when the area in which that rookie has most exceeded expectations is the area which caused doubt to creep in in the first place. A month ago, White was projected to finish the season with the same ISO as Juan Uribe. Now, he’s projected to finish the season hitting for as much power as Albert Pujols.

And when I see White hitting for more power than expected, I can’t help but think back to an Evan Drellich article from the Houston Chronicle in which Drellich noted White was focusing on hitting high fastballs, and “wants to further tap into his power. He’s always had a great eye and taken his walks, so he was attempting to put the ball in the air more.”

White seemed to know more power would be necessary for sustained big-league success. The strikeout rate has spiked alongside the power, perhaps indicating a swing change. He’s the only player in baseball to have recorded at least five balls in play with a launch angle between 25-30 degrees and an exit velocity above 95 mph — the conditions most conducive to hitting home runs. He’s displayed a major league power hitter’s swing plane. Over half his balls in play have been in the air, and he’s slugged 1.000 on elevated pitches — his areas of focus from Spring Training. He’s been thrown one of the lowest rates of in-zone fastballs, an indicator of respect by pitchers — he’s being pitched like J.D. Martinez and Nelson Cruz. White’s still walking as expected and is still spraying the ball all over the field, so he’s kept the things we liked about him in the first place, just with added power on top, and power that looks like it might be legitimate, or at least more legitimate than we’d anticipated.

Tyler White’s probably not going to hit 40 homers, and he’s probably not going to finish the season as one of the three best hitters in baseball. But he’s done enough in just two weeks to drastically alter reasonable expectations for him, and he’s seemingly made changes to his swing that have him now resembling a legitimate major-league bat. Just a month ago, the evidence pointed to the question being, “Is Tyler White going to hit for enough power to be a major-league first baseman?” White looked more like a placeholder until prospect A.J. Reed took over as the first baseman of the future in June. Now, the evidence points to the question being, “How are the Astros going to find at-bats for A.J. Reed?”





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 august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Emcee Peepants
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Emcee Peepants

Is he mashing though? Obviously SSS, but that’s all we have to work with. Since the first 7 games of the season, he has been awful and has zero multi-hit games since then.

First 7 games:
26 PA, 12H, 4K, 2BB, 3HR, .545AVG

Last 8 games:
31 PA, 5H, 13K, 3BB, 2HR, .179AVG

I’m not convinced yet.