Tyler White Heads to South Korea, Where He’ll Buck a Trend

It wasn’t too long ago — just shy of two years, in fact — that Tyler White appeared to have found his spot in the majors, emerging as the hottest hitter on a 103-win juggernaut Astros team. Now, the 29-year-old first baseman is heading to the Korea Baseball Organization to join the SK Wyverns, a decision that makes sense given that he both couldn’t find space in any team’s 60-player pool and that there’s no minor league season. In joining the struggling Wyverns, he’ll be bucking a league-wide trend, as theirs will be the only lineup featuring two foreign-born players.

The current iteration of the KBO roster rules allows teams to carry three foreign-born players, a maximum of two of whom can be pitchers; prior to 2014, the maximum was two. This year, every team in the league has gone with two foreign-born pitchers and one hitter, with the Wyverns using Nick Kingham 킹엄 and Ricardo Pinto 핀토 in their rotation and Jamie Romak 로맥 as their first baseman. As I noted on May 22, however, Kingham made just two starts before suffering an elbow injury of an unspecified nature (getting to the bottom of KBO injuries is a challenge). While initial reports suggested that he might miss only a couple of starts, he didn’t even return to playing catch until late June, and on July 2, the team waived him, opening up a spot for another foreign-born player.

The recent history of lineups with two foreign-born players is a short one. Last year, the Samsung Lions featured Darin Ruf 러프 as their regular first baseman and occasional designated hitter, with outfielder Mac Williamson 윌리엄슨 joining the team in midseason. Because of a rule in place at the time, the team was only allowed to use only two foreign-born players in a game, so one of them had to sit whenever Deck McGuire 맥과이어 or Ben Lively 라이블리 (who replaced McGuire shortly after Williamson arrived) started.

With the help of MyKBO’s Dan Kurtz, I found a small handful of additional examples from this millennium. The 2003 Lotte Giants paired outfielders Robert Perez 페레즈 and Mario Encarnacion 이시온. Outfielder-first baseman Ryan Jackson 라이온 replaced the latter in 2004, and then outfielder Kit Pellow 펠로우 replaced Perez in ’05. In 2006, Lotte paired outfielder Felix Jose 호세 with outfielder-first baseman Brian Myrow 마이로우, who was replaced by another outfielder-first baseman, John Gall 존갈. The 2009 Seoul Heroes, who featured future major leaguers Jung Ho Kang 강정호 and Jae-Gyun Hwang 황재균, had Cliff Brumbaugh as DH and Doug Clark in their outfield. The 2015 KT Wiz, a first-year expansion team, was granted a fourth roster spot for a foreign-born player and featured both third baseman Andy Marte 마르테 and first baseman Dan Black 댄블랙 while cycling through four different imported pitchers.

White, originally a 33rd-round pick by the Astros out of Western Carolina University in 2013, spent parts of the ’16-19 seasons with the Astros, and at times appeared to be their first baseman of the future, or at least the present. He breezed through the minors, making strong showings while never playing more than 71 games at any one of seven stops. After he hit .325/.442/.496 in a 2015 season split between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Fresno, the AL Wild Card-winning Astros non-tendered incumbent first baseman Chris Carter. White won the starting job the following spring, beating out 2014 first round pick AJ Reed, Jon Singleton, Preston Tucker 터커, and Luis Valbuena, among others. He made the Opening Day lineup and held down the starting job for about one-third of the season before being optioned to Fresno. He returned seven weeks later but failed to heat up, finishing at .217/.286/.378 (81 wRC+) with eight homers and -0.2 WAR in 276 plate appearances. With Yuli Gurriel taking over first base in 2017, White spent most of the season at Fresno. He drew just 67 PA with the big club, and was left off the postseason roster.

After losing a battle for a bench spot to J.D. Davis, White spent the first 2 1/2 months of 2018 at Fresno as well, and drew just 40 plate appearances in a four-week stay from mid-June to mid-July before being optioned again, even though he’d hit two homers in his final four plate appearances. When José Altuve went down with a knee injury on July 28, Gurriel helped to fill the second base void, and White returned. He went 3-for-3 with a homer off the Rangers’ Mike Minor, and just kept hitting; from the point of his recall to the end of August, he batted .340/.398/.713 with nine homers in 103 PA; his .711 slugging percentage for August trailed only David Peralta and Justin Turner. He carried his hot streak into mid-September before cooling off, still finishing at .276/.354/.533 (143 wRC+) with 12 homers and 1.1 WAR in 237 PA and getting a taste of the postseason, during which he went 3-for-13 before the Astros were ousted in the ALCS.

White opened the 2019 season as the Astros’ DH against lefties, but again he didn’t hit. When Yordan Alvarez arrived on June 9 and homered eight times in his first 12 games, White’s days were numbered. On July 25, he was traded to the Dodgers for pitcher Andre Scrubb; he went 1-for-22 with four walks in 12 games for Los Angeles before a right trapezius strain effectively ended his season; he finished at .208/.308/.304 (71 wRC+) in 279 PA. Though outrighted off the 40-man roster in the wake of the Mookie Betts trade, he went to spring training with the Dodgers, but was in the wrong organization to carve out time at first base given their stacked roster, and even after the addition of the designated hitter, wasn’t included in their 60-man player pool.

White signed a $160,000 deal for the remainder of the KBO season, joining a Wyverns team that has suddenly fallen on hard times after recent success. In 2018, the Wyverns beat the Doosan Bears in the KBO Series, claiming their first championship in eight years and their fourth since joining the league in 2000. Last year, they finished the regular season at 88-55-1, tied with the Bears atop the standings but seeded second for postseason purposes via the two teams’ head-to-head results. Despite the year-to-year turnover in their rotation, with ace Kwang Hyun Kim 김광현 signing with the Cardinals, number two starter Angel Sánchez 산체스 joining the NBP’s Yomiuri Giants, and midseason arrival Henry Sosa 소사 returning to the CPBL’s Fubon Guardians, this year’s team projected to be the KBO’s third best via ZiPS, with an 83.3% chance of making the playoffs and a 17.0% chance of winning it all.

Instead Wyverns stumbled to a 3-16 start, and after winning eight of 11, then went 3-17 and haven’t shown much life since. At this writing, they’re 19-43, 22.5 games behind the first-place Dinos, and 13 games out of fifth place (occupied by the LG Twins) and a playoff spot. Their .306 winning percentage is the worst in franchise history, and less than half of last year’s .615. They’re scoring just 3.82 runs per game, the league’s second-lowest rate, and their slash stats (.243/.315/.359) are all second-to-last as well. Romak, who last year tied Wyverns third baseman Jeong Choi 최정 for second in the league in homers (29) while batting .276/.370/.508, is hitting .258/.367/.474 with 11 homers in 60 games — better than the league’s average hitter, but actually nothing to write home about relative to its other foreign-born players:

KBO Foreign-Born Position Players
Player Team Age PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Mel Rojas Jr. 로하스 Wiz 30 270 21 .384 .437 .727 196
Jose Miguel Fernandez 페르난데스 Bears 32 285 11 .372 .435 .568 163
Preston Tucker Tigers 29 260 16 .314 .396 .603 155
Roberto Ramos 라모스 Twins 25 236 16 .314 .390 .593 148
Aaron Altherr 알테어 Dinos 29 235 16 .300 .366 .601 146
Tyler Saladino 살라디노 Lions 30 163 6 .280 .411 .477 138
Jamie Romak Wyverns 34 251 11 .258 .367 .474 118
Dixon Machado 마차도 Giants 28 240 4 .276 .335 .393 91
Jared Hoying 호잉* Eagles 31 134 4 .194 .254 .323 48
Taylor Motter 모터* Heroes 30 37 1 .114 .135 .200 -25
Statistics through July 16. * = no longer with team.

The players above Romak all rank among the league’s top 13 hitters by wRC+, while Rojas leads the league in homers, with Altherr, Tucker and Ramos tied with ByungHo Park 박병호 for second. All of which is to say that the Wyverns have fallen behind when it comes to their imported punch.

However the Wyverns fit White into the lineup, it won’t happen immediately, because he has to go through a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arriving in South Korea, and who knows how much additional time he’ll need to be game-ready given that he hasn’t played since March. He probably won’t play much at first base so long as Romak is around; while the latter has experience all over the outfield, mostly in right field, he has rarely played there since 2017, and star right fielder Dong-min Han 한동민 just returned from a seven-week absence caused by a fractured right tibia. Romak has also dabbled at third base, but won’t supplant Choi, who has overcome a very slow start to hit .281/.415/.531 with 12 homers.

White does have some experience at left field, second base, third base, and even shortstop — all as recently as 2018 at Fresno, and he even pitched six times for Houston. Pitching aside, he may be headed for a multiposition role, though a more likely fit could be a platoon with 37-year-old DH Tae-in Chae 채태인, a lefty swinger who’s hitting .314/.364/.431 but earlier this year missed five weeks due to an intercostal strain. Just three of Chae’s 52 PA this year have come against lefties, and likewise just 27 out of 182 last year.

White is a couple years older than Eric Thames 테임즈, who after scuffling in the majors in his mid-20s spent his age 27 to 29 seasons with the NC Dinos and has since returned to carve out a successful major league career. That’s one path his career could follow, though it’s possible that like Romak and Rojas, both of whom are now in their fourth KBO season, he’ll wind up as one of the league’s mainstays. Either way, he’s got an opportunity to play in 2020, and not every Quad-A type first baseman can say that.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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4 years ago

I’m surprised how much worse he was overall in the majors than minors. Obviously he isn’t as bad as last season and it was always going to be limited power for a 1b (around low 20s hr full season equivalent in the minors) but in the minors he posted excellent k-bb rates he could never replicate in the majors.

He did still take his walks but k rate was way up.

He did ace the minors with 900+ ops at most stops but majors was way different.

Imo that is something that happens with walk inflated OPSes when the batspeed isn’t quite elite, in the minors their excellent eye allowed low chase rates and waiting for a fat pitch causing great walk and acceptable k rates because they would eventually get their mistake or take that walk.

At the mlb level that doesn’t work as there are less fat pitches and better stuff so those players were forced to hit edge strikes. Mike olt was a bit like that too and also daniel vogelbach (who had a similar great eye and k jump albeit at least he has more power than white). Zack collins might be that way too.

Don’t get me wrong a prospect that walks is great but if the ops is banking that much on super high walk rates of 15% it is usually something that doesn’t scale if the rest of the tools aren’t there.