It has been an ugly start for top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley, whose last start ended before the hurler could finish an inning. The 6’7” righty has been tattooed in consecutive outings, allowing nine runs across 3.2 innings, and while his start doesn’t exactly have him beating down the door to the majors, it’s no cause for consternation.
For one, Whitley’s statistical markers really aren’t too bad. While he’s already had four balls leave the yard on him, he’s still striking out and walking hitters at rates similar to his history: he currently has a 28.4% K rate and 10.5% BB rate, compared to 31.5% and 10.2% in Corpus last year. While an increase in hittability is always worth examining, hit rates are more prone to peaks and valleys due to variance than are K and BB numbers. It does appear that Whitley is getting hit pretty hard, but by any standard his current BABIP allowed of .373 is highly unlikely to hold firm.
The biggest reason to hold off on panicking is simple- Whitley is pitching at the Triple-A level. In 2019, Triple-A clubs have started using the same baseball as MLB, which has led to an unprecedented offensive explosion. The home run rate at the level has jumped by almost one per game (roughly 50%), and runs scored per game overall are through the roof. Around the league, you can find many cases like that of Josh VanMeter, recently called up to the Reds, who had already collected 13 homers in 131 PAs- a career high before mid-May. Padres infielder Ty France, a talented player to be sure, had slashed .287/.382/.532 last season, and exploded for a .423/.500/.885 line before earning his own promotion. These are just two extreme examples of a larger trend at the Triple-A level, where runs per game have spiked to over ten in both leagues.
Simply put, this is not the same Triple-A that we are used to. The major league baseball, which is spun tighter than its predecessor, has turned offensive production up to eleven, and has proven to (intuitively) have a much more pronounced effect in smaller, minor league park than it does in major league stadiums, and not only in the power department. Players have opined that mishit balls frequently leave the yard in 2019’s Triple-A, and the numbers certainly bear that out. When looking at Forrest Whitley’s numbers, the only thing that has really changed is the quality of contact that he has allowed- and it may be that the quality of contact hasn’t actually improved, but is simply being supplemented by the more tightly wound baseball. Most likely, it’s a bit of both- Whitley is still a young, inexperienced pitcher with just 152 professional innings to his name, and is pitching at a new level for the first time, with a springier baseball to contend with, to boot. Exacerbating the problem further is the fact that Whitley tends to be more of a flyball than groundball pitcher, meaning he’s more prone to let up cheap, juiced ball-facilitated home runs. My assessment is that Whitley’s command isn’t currently at its best, and hitters are squaring him up a bit better than they were in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League in 2018. When coupled with a baseball that flies further, it’s not surprising that Whitley has been met with some early season struggles.
What’s more important is that Whitley is missing as many bats as ever, isn’t losing the plate and has a clean bill of health. There have been no reports of lacking velocity, or breaking stuff flattening out for Whitley. In my opinion, he’s just been a casualty of MLB’s dubious decision to use the major league ball in minor league parks this year, and with his talent and make up, I’d be surprised if he’s not able to adjust to his new environment in short order and position himself for a summer callup, as expected. In short, outside of homer rate, Whitley has largely been himself this year, and much of the homer issue can be chalked up to the new Triple-A environment. Plus, the change to the new baseball isn’t all bad. While its effect is much more pronounced in MiLB parks, it will make the major league transition easier on pitchers, as they no longer have to work with a new ball for the first time in the big leagues- Whitley will likely be better for his struggles to start the year. No prospect is above panic, but in my eyes, it’s not close to that time with Forrest Whitley.