Tyler White’s journey to the majors is why we love baseball
His girlfriend told him. Tyler White had given up checking his phone — his battery was going dead. He had just finished college and was on the road helping his father coach an AAU baseball team. Then his girlfriend, Macey Bright, sent him a text message.
He had been drafted. By the Astros. In the 33rd round.
Tyler White, a third baseman who had no Division I scholarship offers before walking on at Western Carolina, was going to be a professional baseball player — and never mind that he was the 977th player selected overall in 2013, or that his signing bonus was only $1,000.
If you want to understand the essence of what makes baseball great, the attraction that draws us in season after season, the magic that makes Opening Day unlike any other in sports, all you need to know is this:
White, 25, is the Astros’ new starting first baseman. He won the job this spring, won it by doing the same thing he did at Western Carolina, in the Panamanian and Dominican winter leagues and at all seven levels of the Astros’ minor-league system — and yes, he stopped at each one.
The Astros’ A.J. Reed is a better prospect than White at first base, the top first-base prospect in all of baseball according to most observers. Reed, 22, should be ready for the majors at some point this season, but he has yet to play at Triple A and the Astros seem inclined to give White a legitimate shot.
"People refer to this as the ‘Tyler White experiment.’" Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow says. "Well, it worked in college. It worked at seven levels of the minor leagues. We fully expect it to work at the major-league level."
To think, White recalls speaking to only one major-league scout when he was at Western Carolina, someone from the Giants whom he knew from back home in Forest City, N.C. He filled out a questionnaire for the Astros, but according to Luhnow, only one other team requested his medical records; the other 28 deemed him unworthy of being drafted.
"His body scared a lot of scouts, quite frankly," Luhnow says.
White, listed at 5-foot-11, 224 pounds in trimmed-down form, faced other obstacles as well.
Western Carolina, a Division I school in Cullowhee, N.C., produced major-league relievers Greg Holland and Jared Burton, but scouts consider its location remote. Tim Bittner, the Astros’ scout who signed White, says that scouts generally prefer to see Western Carolina players in the eastern part of the state.
Bittner watched White at UNC-Greensboro and then at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he also was scouting other prospects. He didn’t get a good enough look at White in the first game he saw, so he went back the next day.
Not that White was aware of anyone following him.
"We’d see a couple of scouts every day at the games watching a couple of guys – me not being one of them, really," White says (Western Carolina had one other player drafted in ’13 and three who would be drafted in ’14.)
Still, White wanted badly to play professionally, even if he had to start in independent ball. He felt he had improved each season in college, and didn’t want his career to end while he was still peaking.
Bittner thought White could be "good organizational filler" — that is, the kind of player who fills out minor-league rosters.
The Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual says, "White was drafted as someone for live arms to strike out in Rookie league."
Except, Prospectus adds, "He never stopped hitting."
— Houston Astros (@astros) April 1, 2016
Remember Jeremy Brown, the pudgy catcher whom the Athletics’ Billy Beane selected with the 35th overall pick despite the strong objections of his scouts in 2002?
The scouts were proven largely correct — Brown made only 11 plate appearances in the majors — and the bias against players with soft, unathletic bodies endures.
The Astros liked White primarily for the same reason the Athletics liked Brown — his offensive statistics in college. But White also had the support of Bittner, who was unafraid to face derision from his peers for bringing the overweight kid into the Astros’ organization.
"I credit him for not being scared to take a guy who looked like he played in a beer league," Luhnow says.
The Astros put it to White bluntly after his first professional season — he had to lose weight.
"When he first came in, he was a little out of shape, kind of portly," said Astros director of player personnel Quinton McCracken, who previously was the team’s farm director. "We sat him down and told him we love the hit tool, but you’ve got to get that body in better shape so you could have more mobility at a corner spot.
"That following spring, he came in a changed man physically. Everyone was surprised when he came into camp. He had a totally different body."
Bittner saw it as testament to White’s dedication — players rarely lose weight in the minors, eating the wrong foods, eating at late hours, eating and then sitting for hours on long bus rides.
White says he had not worried about his weight at Western Carolina.
"In college, you played to win. You didn’t really think about that kind of stuff," White says.
— Houston Astros (@astros) April 1, 2016
"It’s hard to find the middle ground. Last year I came in light. I don’t think I was as strong as I should have been. This year, I’m kind of in the middle. I’m still trying to work on it. It takes a long time to put on muscle and lose fat."
Even as White improved his physique, he never was penciled in as a starter at any minor-league level, Luhnow says. White had to work his way into an everyday role with each club, a process he describes as "very mentally draining." But he learned to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
McCracken can relate — not only is he also a native of North Carolina, but he also had a similar profile coming out of the draft. Both White and McCracken were drafted as seniors, not juniors. McCracken went in the 25th round, then spent the better part of 12 seasons in the majors.
"You’ve got to wait your turn. You’ve got to be opportunistic. And when you get that opportunity, you’ve got to run with it," McCracken says. "Tyler has certainly done that."
Jeremy Brown? Not the way McCracken sees it.
"I categorize him as "Billy Butler Lite," McCracken says. "The guy can absolutely rake. He swings a magic wand."
Actually, the better comparison for White might be the Cardinals’ Matt Adams.
The common denominators for both are Luhnow and his leading statistical analyst, Sig Mejdal, who were with the Cardinals before the Astros.
"Sig is always a guy that pushes these guys hard," Luhnow says. "He’s passionate about it. He loves finding diamonds in the rough."
— Houston Astros (@astros) April 1, 2016
Adams batted .495 with a 1.419 OPS in his senior year at Division II Slippery Rock before the Cardinals chose him in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft.
White’s statistics were not quite as gaudy, but he showed some of the same traits — a strong OPS, a good strikeout-to-walk ratio. His turning point came in his senior year, when he suddenly began hitting for power.
White had told Bobby Moranda, his coach at Western Carolina, that he wanted to be all-Southern Conference. Moranda responded by telling him that he needed to hit more home runs.
In White’s first three seasons, he had a total of six homers — three as a freshman, two as a sophomore, one as a junior.
In his senior year, he hit 16.
His transformation had started the previous summer in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer league in the southeast. Pitchers tend to dominate the league, Moranda says; the hitters use wooden bats.
Moranda says that White tried to hit home runs every single batting practice that summer, every single at-bat. He still didn’t show much power in fall intrasquad games. But everything clicked in the January intrasquad games, and again during the season.
Moranda, for the first time, thought White had a chance to get drafted.
"I’m telling scouts, ‘You don’t understand, this guy can flat-out rake,’" says Moranda, who previously was associate head coach at Georgia Tech and a head assistant at Wake Forest and Virginia. "
"You know what a guy who can really hit looks like. Every time we faced these (future) draft picks, he raked those guys. He was hitting — and hitting for power."
— Cut4 (@Cut4) March 29, 2016
Mejdal noticed. Bittner noticed. And while Moranda saw Kevin Youkilis as a comp — he had worked at Wake Forest with Mike Rikard, who had coached Youkilis in the Cape Cod League and is now the Red Sox’s scouting director — Mejdal had flashbacks to Adams.
The parallels were unmistakable.
Both Adams and White performed impressively at schools that did not attract much attention from scouts. Both had a scout who championed them — Brian Hopkins in Adams’ case — and both failed to generate excitement among other clubs, enabling Luhnow, Mejdal and Co. to grab them in later rounds.
"As professionals, they both have done nothing but work hard and hit, hit, hit," says Mejdal, whose title with the Astros is special assistant to the GM, process improvement. "Adams of course has done it at the major league level, while Tyler is just starting that now. Given Tyler’s work ethic and his track record, I wouldn’t bet against him continuing to hit in the majors."
Mejdal credits Luhnow for establishing processes to combine objective and subjective information with the Cardinals, and Astros scouting director Mike Elias — another former Cardinals employee — for helping introduce new processes in Houston.
"You’ve got to give Houston tons of credit," says Moranda, the Western Carolina coach. "There are a lot of guys who have ability like Tyler, and they don’t ever get a shot. I praise that organization for thinking outside the box."
Of course, it is one thing for a player to reach the majors, and quite another for him to succeed at that level.
Baseball America wrote of White in its 2016 Prospect Handbook, "Without the range to play third base in more than an emergency, he’s likely to be a backup bat whose lack of a clear defensive position and average power keeps him from an everyday role."
Prospectus said: "Players picked in the 33rd round with Billy Jo Robidoux-like facial hair and physique and no natural defensive position aren’t even supposed to make the Annual, but here we are."
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 1, 2016
The question is, for how long?
Moranda takes exception to criticism of White’s defense at first, saying, "he’s a magician over there." And Luhnow, normally mild-mannered in conversation, bristles at the notion that White is a place-holder for Reed.
"I don’t think that’s fair," Luhnow says. "Again, this idea of the ‘Tyler White experiment’ — I don’t buy it.
"Tyler White will be an everyday, big-league first baseman. We might end up having two or three of those guys. But right now, Tyler White is the best choice in our organization. He’s not a place-holder for anyone except himself. We’re going to give him every chance to succeed."
White, after overcoming so much, professes no particular concern about Reed.
It is White who has a .422 career on-base percentage in the minors, White who was named MVP of the Dominican League over the winter, White who won the first base competition over Reed and Jonathan Singleton with his big spring.
Reed is White’s polar opposite, a second-round pick out of Kentucky in 2014. He hit 34 homers between High A and Double A last season, and his OBP in two professional seasons is .415.
"He’s a big home-run guy who has a great swing and is also able to do things that other home-run guys haven’t in the past, as far as putting the ball in play and hitting for a high average," White says of Reed. "He’s an incredible player, but I don’t really think about that too much.
"Our games are a little bit different. He’s left-handed, I’m right-handed. I think we can complement each other as players. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity I have right now. Hopefully he has a great year and we can play together sometime in the big leagues."
A new season is upon us, and White on Tuesday will be starting at first base for the Astros at Yankee Stadium.
Everything else can wait.