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Tyler Whitaker Turns a Corner?

No longer a teenager, top 2021 Astros draft pick Tyler Whitaker has been thriving in August. Is this a breakout or a blip?

It was a bit of a surprise to see the Astros snag an upside-oriented prep player in Tyler Whitaker with their first pick in the 2021 draft given their limited bonus pool and competitive window- Whitaker was a bit of a polarizing prospect in the leadup to the draft, but even those that rated him highly agreed that there was a lot of developmental ground to cover for him to fully tap into his potential. That was borne out when Whitaker struggled mightily early in the Low-A season, posting OPSes of .504 and .434 in the first two months. Naturally, there wasn’t a lot of positivity regarding his performance from the national prospecting media, who continued to see potential issues in his swing that were compounded by a free swinging approach as well as some struggles with spin which combined for a rough look in the box. Furthermore, Whitaker wasn’t even really getting to his prodigious power, his carrying tool as a draft prospect when he did make contact, struggling to keep his ISO over .100 into early summer.

Needless to say, it wasn’t the start that Whitaker and the Astros were hoping for, and he was dropped in midseason ranking updates more or less across the board. However, that probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise– starting with the obvious, Whitaker is young for the Low-A level, having turned 20 just three weeks ago. He’s one of just 53 position players to have appeared in the Carolina League as a teenager in 2022, several out of that group have played very sparingly, and quite a few others have struggled to the same degree as Whitaker or close to it.

Additionally, Whitaker has been saddled with a uniquely large workload for a first year minor leaguer, handling three different positions in outfield, shortstop and third base. While he did have infield experience as a prep player, he had transitioned to primarily outfield work by his upperclassman years and was expected to be drafted in that role. There have certainly been some growing pains for the Nevada product on the dirt, but in context his defensive performance has been quite impressive, and he has shown enough to suggest that he could have true infield-outfield versatility, even if it’s just of the 3B/RF variety.

We’ve established that Whitaker is due a bit of extra slack for his offensive performance this season, but does the eye test offer any reason for optimism on the offensive side? Sort of. As one might have gathered from the fact that I’ve only quoted first half numbers thus far, Whitaker has started to show signs of improvement at the plate, both on film and the stat sheet. One of the more glaring issues in his offensive game early in the year, as mentioned above, was his highly aggressive approach and what appeared to be poor spin recognition, and there has been definitive second half improvement in those areas, resulting in an uptick in walk rate as well as slugging. The slash numbers remained ugly through July (though he did post his best SLG to date in that month), but he appears to have turned a real corner in August, finally posting a legitimately strong slash line for the month at .279/.364/.559, including 4 home runs 7 doubles, both career bests for a calendar month as well.

The swing and miss has still been plentiful, however, as his 33 strikeouts fall right in line with his season rates with the exception of his disastrous May, and this could be a persistent concern for Whitaker. His mechanics were the single most divisive piece of his profile coming out of high school, and the shape doesn’t look significantly different at this point in time. Both FanGraphs and Baseball America have called his swing “grooved” – roughly meaning that he has a difficulty squaring up balls that aren’t to the heart of the plate – in the past, and while I’d push back on that characterization slightly because I feel that he can handle the low strike fine, I would echo concerns about his ability to make meaningful contact in the upper third against high level pitching. As far as location-based concerns go, this is a particularly big red flag, as the rising fastball has spread through pro baseball like wildfire and there’s no doubt that Whitaker is going to get a steady diet of them. For that reason, I’m continuing to temper my expectations for Whitaker a bit, but he deserves a lot of credit for dutifully handling an assignment that was quite aggressive in multiple ways and showing real improvements throughout the season. I still feel that he may need fairly significant swing tweaks to approach his potential, but the improved plate discipline greatly reduces his risk level nonetheless. It would be a mistake to let him get lost in the shuffle of the arrival of the Astros’ lauded 2022 draft class.