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Tyler White: Great Shark or Big Guppie?

Tyler White is red hot as DH/1B. Will it last? Is he the long term answer?

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Do you remember that hopeful first week of the 2016 season, the young Astros fresh from their first trip to the playoffs in 10 years, ready to go for it all? Do you remember how exciting it was when another new face, the 2013 thirty third round draft pick, rookie Tyler White, started the season mashing like Lou Gehrig? In his first week in the major leagues he was named MLB player of the week. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I bet even the Iron Horse didn’t win that award.

Even the Bible of level-headed, fact based, sabremetric baseball science, Fangraphs, fell for the Tyler White bait and switch. On 4/21/16 they ran an article entitled Tyler White Already Looks For Real.

By July he was back at AAA.

Here are the stats for early 2016 Tyler White (April 5- April 22) and the 2016 after White.

Before—.299/.380/.607. 8 HR’s in 121 PA’s (1/15) 170 wRC+ After——.193/.261/.302. 3 HR’s in 211 PA’s (1/70) 53 wRC+

Tyler White is just one of many Astros first base prospects to disappoint: Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, and two others who might still succeed, but have disappointed numerous times so far, A.J. Reed, and J. D. Davis.

So despite his 2018 slash line of .314/.397/.637, with 8 home runs and a wRC+ of 182 in 116 PA’s, don’t you feel a little leery of throwing in your support for the Astros’ newest NEXT BIG THING. Doesn’t that slash line look a little too much like that early 2016 one? Haven't we all learned our lesson by now?

So, the questions is: Is 2018 Tyler White the real deal, a frightful predator who will terrorize Major League pitchers for years to come, or is he just streaky, and in time will settle back into his AAA norm, just a small fish in a tiny pond.

Is he the monster on the left? Or as soon as we think he’s for real, will he revert again to that bait on the right, the helpless prey of major league pitchers.

Well, I’ll give you the short answer first. Long term, he’s probably neither the monster on the left, nor is he the washout many assumed him to be after his slump in 2016. Yes, I’m copping out. He’s probably somewhere in the middle. Does that mean he’s a legitimate 25 man roster big leaguer. Yes.

Let’s start with the skeptic’s case.

Yes he’s on a streak right now. It’s hard to believe he will continue to slug higher than Mike Trout. His OPS, just below Trout’s, is higher than it was in AAA this year, or at any time at any level of his professional career. His wRC+ of 182 is second in MLB for hitters with more than 100 PA’s, behind only Trout. Is he really better than J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, etc.? His BABIP of .358 is plain silly for a guy with no wheels.

ZiPS, Steamer, Depth Charts and THE BAT have similar projections for White going forward. Depth Charts is in the middle, and they say .252/.328/.441 with a 113 wRC+. Those are respectable numbers but still a sizable regression.

Statcast expects White’s wOBA to drop from its current 5th in MLB (if he qualified) .416 to .372, still a very respectable 58th in MLB. That is the 9th largest differential on Statcast’s board. His average exit velocity, 90.2 MPH, while impressive, doesn’t support the super elite results he is having, rating only 72nd out 402 hitters. Again advanced stats predict sizable regression.

In 2016 White was amazing for three weeks and then disappeared. Will he disappear again?

To answer this one approach I wanted to take was to compare his hot streak in 2016 to his 2018 season. Maybe there is something different about this year’s Tyler White that would insulate him from the slump he experienced in 2016. What I look for in a hitter to validate his long term legitimacy is his plate discipline, his contact rates, his plate coverage, his ability to hit all types of pitches from both left and right handed pitchers, and his ability to hit to all fields. Batters who swing at bad pitches, swing and miss a lot, have weaknesses for particular pitches which pitchers can frequently exploit, and who can only hit to a limited part of the field, tend not to have sustained success.

First let’s compare “good” White’s 2016 plate discipline to his plate discipline in 2018.

Tyler White Plate Discipline Early 2016 vs. 2018

Year O swing % Contact % Swstr % K% BB%
Year O swing % Contact % Swstr % K% BB%
2016(early) 23.4 75 9.7 27.7 9.2
2018 26.7 83.7 6.8 23.3 12.1

Overall these statistics indicate that Tyler White had good plate discipline to begin with, but it has improved. He makes contact about 9% more, swings and misses about 3% less, strikes out about 4.5% less, and walks about 3% more. The reduced strikeout rate needs to be understood in the context of the overall increase in strikeout rates in general since 2016. He does swing outside the zone (O swing %) slightly more.

Another difference in plate discipline, derived from Brooks Baseball, is a considerable uptick, around 10%, in the number of foul balls 2018 Tyler White hits. This tells me that he is getting deeper into counts, and getting a better look at the pitchers.

One confounding oddity about White’s hitting profile is his reverse splits in different counts. In 2016 he hit best in the counts you would expect hitters to hit well in, when there are more balls than strikes in the count. In 2018 his best count is 0-2, when he hits .423. At 1-2 he hits .333. At 3-1 he hits .154 and 3-2, .053. This is hard to explain, but possibly with his ability to foul off pitches he is able to hang in until he gets a pitch he likes. I know that doesn’t fully explain it. Any explanations are welcomed in the comments.

Let’s put this plate discipline for 2018 in context. Let’s begin with this stat. His ISO is .324. That is second in MLB. His HR/FB rate is 28.6%, eighth in MLB. When guys hit for power they usually sacrifice discipline. Yet his contact % is 66th in the league out of 409. He is barely behind Tony Kemp on the Astros, and just .1% behind Mike Trout.

His K % is about average, but it compares favorably to elite power hitters. White is at 23.3%, Mike Trout is at 20.2%, J.D. Martinez is at 23.2%, Kris Davis is at 25.2%, Aaron Judge is at 30.6%, Joey Gallo is at 34.6%

White’s 12.1% BB% is 52nd in MLB. Only Alex Bregman is better on the Astros at 12.9%. White does not have the reputation that a Trout or a Judge does, so keep in mind no one is pitching around Tyler White at this time as they do some of the others.

White’s swinging strike %, 6.8% is 50th in MLB out of 409, .8% behind Trout, and just ahead of teammate Tony Kemp.

Even his O swing% is in the top quarter, 104 out of 409.

Next let’s look at his batted ball profile, early 2016 and 2018. I want to avoid too many charts, so I will hit the high points. In early 2016 White had a higher hard hit ball rate, 47.5%, which means he actually has room to improve from his current 40% rate, 96th in MLB.

When you look at the difference between early 2016 White and later 2016 White, the main factor in his decline was a decline in his hard hit rate, down to 26.7% Is that why his BABIP went down from .343 in early 2016 to .238 for the rest of the year?

One concerning difference in White’s 2018 batted ball profile is his new tendency to pull. In early 2016 White had great balance in his spray chart, hitting 30% pull, 40%, center, and 30% oppo. This year White’s pull % is 49.3%, which makes him one of the most extreme pull hitters in baseball right now.

Is this why he is better in 2018, or does it mean that he is becoming one-dimensional in his approach in pursuit of homers, and setting himself up for trouble, meaning a slump, later? Again I welcome comments. I feel that hitters who can hit to all fields are more consistent, but I have no data to prove it.

Next, let’s look at how White handles various pitches, again looking for differences between early 2016 White and current White for basic improvements that could mean greater viability and consistency. The following chart shows his pitch value rating against various pitches, early 2016 and now. The symbols are fastball value per 100, slider value per 100, cutter value/100, curve ball value/100, and change up value per 100. For a hitter + values are good.

White Pitch Value, Early 2016 and 2018

2016(early) 1.53 -.8 1.74 -1 5.64
2018 2.4 3.48 1.51 -1.65 2.21

This data is encouraging. White was always a good fastball hitter. Now he is elite, his 2.4 value is 10th in MLB. But what is most encouraging is his improvement in hitting sliders. His 3.48 value is 8th in MLB. He has gone from being vulnerable to sliders to mashing them. This means that instead of being vulnerable to two pitches, he is now vulnerable only to the curve, from which he has only a handful of base hits in his entire career, and none this year. But only certain pitchers throw curves, and only a certain percentage of those are for strikes. Being vulnerable to sliders and curves is way worse than just to curves. It is an area, of course, that White needs to work on, but also an opportunity for improvement.

I looked at White’s right left splits and found normal variations. His wRC+ against lefties in 2018 is 203, and against righties it is 147. He had similar, though slightly more exaggerated splits in early 2016. Not much difference there.

Next I want to show White’s heatmaps for early 2016 and 2018. The point I want to show is how he was pitched in early 2016 and where he got his hits in the strike zone. Then I want to show how pitchers responded to cause his drop off in latter 2016. Then I want to show how pitchers are pitching him now.

This heatmap shows the location of pitches to White in early 2016.

The next heatmap shows his batting average in each quadrant of the zone.

As you can see, in early 2016 pitchers were throwing the ball exactly where White likes to hit it, on a line from the high inside corner to the low outside corner. If you’ve ever seen him swing you can easily picture this.

Later in 2016 pitchers adjusted slightly as the following heatmap shows.

It’s not a dramatic difference, but if you study closely you will see pitchers began to avoid the inner third of the plate and went a little higher. They definitely tried to avoid that line that criss-crossed the plate northwest to southeast, especially in the northwest.

Although I’m not going to say pitch location alone explains White’s slump in latter 2016, although I couldn’t find any dramatic differences in pitch selection, here is what his hitting heatmap looked like later in the year.

Well, this is obviously the profile of a bad hitter, and even when he saw pitches in what was the top right part of what was his sweet spot, he now missed them, for whatever reason.

This is how White is pitched in 2018.

Except for those pitches outside the zone this looks a lot like the location White saw in latter 2016. His book hasn’t changed that much.

And here’s what he’s doing with the pitches.

He’s got that northwest to southeast line reestablished, and even coverage outside the zone high inside, low and outside. He does look vulnerable to the high outside pitch, although this is less obvious if I showed a heatmap with slugging pct., as a few of his homers have come from that area.

The main takeaway from this chart analysis is that when Tyler White assaulted the league in 2016, pitchers adjusted, and he didn’t. It appears that now he has.

I’m not going to pretend that this information allows us to predict how good good Tyler White will be. If the future performance of baseball players could be predicted with certainty, then the Astros would have never drafted Mark Appel, or cut J.D. Martinez.

I do think that this data does give Astros fans some reason to be optimistic that Tyler White will not fall off a cliff again, and that he can be a productive hitter with enough pop to play first base or DH. He may be outperforming peripherals at this time, but the peripherals are still good.

On the other hand, if he goes into another slump, his peripherals will go into slump too. Back to its hard to predict baseball.

Who knows, he could be the next J. D. Martinez, after all, nobody thought J. D. Martinez would ever become J. D. Martinez until he did. When I said at the beginning that White’s BABIP of .358 was “silly,” that was actually very illogical, as it assumed a position on the proposition that was in question. A .358 BABIP is silly only if you assume in the first place that Tyler White is not elite, for if he is then a BABIP in that area is quite normal.

But I don’t think Tyler White is that elite based on xWOBA, exit velocity etc. But also because of the hated eyeball test. His swing seems to have hitches in it, not smooth like Alex Bregman’s for example. And he seems to lean into the ball as he hits it, a lot like George Springer, or even Carlos Gomez, and I believe the delicacy of that balancing act inclines a hitter to streakiness, even if it provides power.

But one more plus for Tyler White. As a 33rd round draft pick out of a small college, he has already over-achieved beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations. He is the Astros’ best hitter so far this year, in his limited time of course. Who da thunk. Certainly not the projection services, who all had him around wRC+ 95 before the season started. He is a perfect example of someone with what the Astros call a “growth mindset.” He is another one of several Astros with an incredible work ethic who will continue to do whatever it takes to continue to improve, despite all obstacles.

I expect him to crush curve balls next year.