PEORIA, Ariz. – The batter’s box can be a lonely place when the opposing pitcher is pumping mid-90s heaters and snapping off breaking pitches at you, the catcher is framing up off-the-plate pitches for called strikes and the umpire’s strike zone resembles a floating Rorschach test.
As a hitter, if you are looking for any words of encouragement or advice, well, it’s a conversation with yourself.
It’s not an uncommon sight to see a baseball player talking to himself for a variety of reasons. There were times last season when Evan White would be in the batter’s box trying to talk to himself about how to get a hit in that at-bat … only he wouldn’t get a response.
The old joke of “I keep playing mind games with myself … and losing” felt applicable.
It should have been the best year of his life, getting married, signing a six-year contract extension for $24 million to get financial security and jumping from the Double-A level to the everyday first-base job for the Mariners.
Instead, COVID-19 reduced the 2020 season to just 60 games. An early slump sank White into a hole he couldn’t climb out, made him tentative at the plate while trying to get four hits for every swing to fix his sub-.200 batting average and led to striking out more than he’d endured in his baseball-playing life.
“I really felt like I kind of lost who I was at the plate,” White said after the season.
In an effort to get back to who he was at the plate, White went back to his college days at the University of Kentucky and the teachings of his hitting coach, Rick Eckstein, who is now a hitting coach with the Pirates.
“He would always say, think, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes and trust your eyes to tell you no,’ ” White said.
To do that, White is talking to himself, sometimes audibly repeating those words at the plate, even as the pitcher is delivering the ball.
“I’m not sure if you or anyone else has seen it, but if you pay attention, I’m literally trying to tell myself, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ when I’m in the box,” he said. “I did it for the first time against the Royals. I looked at the video from the side view and you can see my mouth moving on the pitch. That’s a good thing.”
That “yes” moment for White against the Royals was a two-run single to right field with the bases loaded. He went 2 for 3 in the game with a walk.
The next day against the Angels, he crushed a grand slam to left-center. While he went 0 for 3 against the White Sox, he had productive at-bats with a sacrifice fly and a line out to center that had a 111-mph exit velocity.
White is making aggressive swings when he sees pitches he wants to hit.
“I feel like I really got away from that last year,” he said. “I got so caught up in trying to read what the pitchers were doing and I felt like I was on the defense. And that’s never good when you’re at the plate. So I’m really just going to focus on being on the attack and stay with my approach. If I can do that, then good things are going to happen.”
His overall spring numbers aren’t pretty with a .147/.220/.265 slash line with a double, a homer, a team-high 12 RBIs with four walks and seven strikeouts in 38 plate appearances, which was a product of not staying on the attack early in camp.
“I feel really good and feel pretty consistent lately,” he said. “I feel like I’m having good at-bats, hitting the ball hard and really just competing. That’s what I’m pretty excited about. It’s definitely been a nice progression. I think early on I was hitting balls decent, but I was still a little stuck back on the defense. So it’s nice to be able recognize that and iron it out.”
White has reduced his number of swings and misses and has developed a consistent mindset at the plate and for the season.
“Evan has a very clear plan of how he wants to approach this season,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Last year was his first go-around and it got going a little quick for him at times, and he didn’t have the ability to slow it down.
“He was kind of like grasping at straws all over the place. I know coming into this camp and sitting down with him, he’s been very direct in that he wants to stay very focused and stay true to his approach and not get too caught up in making the little tweaks mechanically, so I applaud him for that.”
White did start spring with higher setup for his hands, but has since lowered them to his more familiar position. He’s looking for simplicity to constant adjustments to his swing.
“I have a checklist when I get in the box,” he said. “I set my bat on my shoulder for a second, I pick it up and then get ready to go. I know where my hands are at and it’s something that might change here depending on how I’m feeling during the day. But it’s not something I’m worrying about when I get in the box. Once I get in there, it’s go-time. It’s time to compete and be on the attack.””
And really for White, it’s not about where his hands start, but that they are in the proper position when he gets his front foot down on the ground as the swing moves forward.
“You can start them however,” he said. “Look at Craig Counsell or Kevin Youkilis, you can start in different, funky positions. But as long as you get to a good firing position (to start the swing), you’ve got a shot.”
Hitting coach Tim Laker is fine with this approach.
“He’s really trying to focus on hitting the fastball,” Laker said. “Last year, there were times where he got in between because he’d really want to hit the fastball, but he’d be too concerned about chasing the breaking ball. He’s really trying to commit to being aggressive to hitting the fastball. And if they throw a lousy breaking ball that hangs up, he can adjust and hit it.”
White needs to have full commitment when he gets those fastballs. Even a little bit of hesitation leads to the front foot getting down a half a tick late and fouled off pitches that should’ve been hit hard.
“Those were fastballs that he is good enough to hit and he shouldn’t have been missing,” Laker said. “Watching his at-bats, he wasn’t sure what he should be looking for.”
White knows what he’s looking for at the plate now. And those conversations with himself in the plate won’t allow him to forget.