If one could weave everything Evan White has been working on into a microcosm event, it would be the grand slam he unloaded in Wednesday’s Cactus League loss to the Angels.
Being selective with his swing decisions and working a count full. Utilizing his new setup and stance to create a better swing path and contact point. Drilling a middle-away fastball on the thick of the barrel, a sign that his timing is getting close to right. And above all, trusting himself.
There were certainly frustrations during a tough rookie season at the plate, when he hit .176/.252/.346 -- but never self-doubt.
“I wish I could’ve learned all the lessons I learned last year while hitting .330,” White said in a one-on-one interview at the Peoria Sports Complex recently. “But I didn't. That’s the reality of it. I'm very thankful for all the lessons I learned, and at the end of day, I'm incredibly thankful for everything that happened last year.”
The “Aha!” moment of White’s self-conviction came on the final Monday of last season, when he struck out in his first two at-bats against Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. then unloaded on a breaking ball in his third at-bat for a three-run homer. It was a moment of relief, but it also motivated White to seriously examine his mental approach to the game.
Over the offseason, White kept in close contact with Mariners director of player personnel Andy McKay, who has an extensive psychology background and preaches its importance as a significant factor in each plan that the Mariners outline to their Minor Leaguers. White, who hit .356/.414/.527 at the University of Kentucky and .296/.361/.471 over three years in the Minors, had never really considered that component before.
“I think the biggest thing is realizing how important it is,” White said of his mental health. “You get in the weight room, and work that out. You get in the cage, and you work that out. You have to continue to work on your mind. That’s something I never thought about before. So it kind of opened my eyes to that and really just building my confidence. The game should be the fun part because you put the work in.”
White probably wasn’t having as much fun as he’d like over the first two weeks of Cactus League play, when he went hitless over 16 at-bats across seven games. But in that stretch, he struck out just four times and was just a tick off with his timing. It’s only Spring Training, and the pitching hasn’t been nearly at the level he’ll see in the regular season. But the more consistent contact is an encouraging sign after White punched out 84 times in 202 plate appearances last year for a 41.6 percent rate that was the second highest in the Majors.
“Evan’s got big-time power,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s just the consistency of getting to his pitch and getting it in play. ... We’re starting to see the timing and the confidence come together here.”
That’s why Wednesday’s slam carried more weight. It was the most positive result he’s seen with his new stance, which features his hands in a higher spot to help him make more direct contact with the ball opposed to explicitly trying to create more loft, which he said was an issue last year. After working in person with Mariners hitting coach Tim Laker and assistant hitting coach Jarett DeHart, the first baseman settled on his new stance one week before Spring Training.
It’s White’s raw power that has Mariners management excited. When he did make contact, it was hard-hit -- anything with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher -- more than half the time, in the echelon of Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto.
The next step, which White is actively addressing, is to avoid “chasing” pitches, which was the biggest factor that led to his struggles in 2020, the first prolonged slump since being drafted by Seattle in the first round of ’17 -- a stretch that likely would’ve necessitated a stint at Triple-A Tacoma for more development had the Minor League season not been canceled.
That insurance will be there in 2021, beginning on May 6 after the Minors seasons were delayed. But the Mariners aren’t considering that right now. No player on Seattle’s 2020 team had a more eye-opening experience offensively than the 24-year-old White, who jumped from Double-A Arkansas to starting big league first baseman in less than one year, and they’re committed to allowing him to keep learning.
“Now it's like, ‘OK, how committed can I stay to my plan?’ White said. “And it kind of takes the pressure off of it because I'm so focused on that and not focusing on my last at-bat. I focus on this exact pitch. OK, now the next pitch. It's really changed my whole way of thinking about things in general. … But like I said, it's a never-ending process. And there's going be battles, where it's some days where it's easier than others.”