In June of 2019, the Rays made a peculiar pick in the 6th round of the MLB draft. The team selected right-handed pitcher Colby White out of Mississippi State University. The reason why the pick was interesting was that White had already been converted into a reliever in college.
When it comes to the MLB draft, the general group-think logic is to take pitchers who have the upside to be major league starters, but can always fall back to relief roles if things don’t pan out. This is mostly because starting pitchers are able to provide much more value to big league teams than relievers can (I’m speaking in generalities and there are of course exceptions to this).
Unsurprisingly, the Rays like to zig when everybody zags and this case is no different. It’s not rare to see teams select relief-only pitchers in the draft, but it is rare to see them selected in the 6th round or higher. It was a bit of a bold move for the Rays, but at the end of the day, the decision appears to be working out just fine for the club.
White has done nothing but perform since arriving in the system and his 2021 season was one for the record books. He started the season at low-A Charleston (the lowest minor league level) and was promoted all the way up to AAA Durham (the highest minor league level) by the end of the year. Here’s what his total 2021 stats looked liked:
Colby White 2021 Stats
Let’s use some context to describe just how dominant he was in 2021. There were 743 minor league pitchers who threw 60 innings or more in 2021. Here is where he ranked in various pitching metrics amongst that group:
- First in ERA (1.44)
- First in FIP (2.09)
- First in Batting Average Against (.123)
- First in WHIP (0.66)
- First in K% (45.0%)
- First in K-BB% (38.5%)
Yes, you read those numbers correctly. Colby White is borderline unhittable.
How does he do it? It actually appears to be quite a simple approach for the right-hander. He comes right after the hitter with a steady diet of fastballs and sliders. He also mixes in a changeup at times, but doesn’t throw it as often as his main two offerings.
Since we don’t have minor league pitch data, it’s hard to know exactly what makes those pitches so good, but it is fairly safe to assume that he has interesting pitch characteristics given his incredible success. The video below shows how well his repertoire works in action:
One of the more obvious consistencies in that clip is how well his fastball works up in the zone. This is interesting to me because while the velocity of the pitch is not bad by any stretch (most reports place it in the mid-90’s), the great results and baffling swings he gets on the pitch would make you think he’s throwing it 105 mph.
What this tells me is that White’s fastball likely has very interesting pitch characteristics beyond velocity. As for what those fastball characteristics are, I’m going to speculate that he excels in two specific areas: vertical movement and vertical approach angle.
Vertical movement is the amount the pitch moves up or down in comparison to a theoretical straight pitch. Fastballs with strong vertical movement work exceptionally well at the top of the zone, and that is where Colby loves to throw his heater.
Nick Anderson and Colin Poche are two recent examples of Rays relievers who thrived in their rookie seasons primarily because of the great vertical movement on their fastballs. I think it’s likely that Colby White follows in their footsteps.
The last point I want to make about White’s fastball is that he appears to throw it from a fairly low release height. Take a look at this still image of his release point below:
His body is low to the ground, yet he’s still able to get all the way on top of the fastball which produces a back-spinning pitch that travels on an extremely flat plane. The downward angle at which the pitch crosses the plate is also known as the Vertical Approach Angle (VAA) of the pitch.
Pitches with a VAA close to zero degrees are fastballs that travel on a very flat plane (like White’s) and VAA’s further away from zero (in the negative direction) are pitches that come in at a very steep angle (Aaron Slegers is a good example of this).
The concept of flat-plane fastballs is exactly how relievers like Craig Kimbrel, Edwin Diaz, and Josh Hader have been dominating hitters with fastballs for years now, as they each rank among the league leaders in flat fastball VAA. Mariners reliever Paul Sewald is an example of a pitcher who broke out in 2021 largely because of this unique fastball trait as well.
We’ll have to wait until Colby pitches in MLB to know just how unique his fastball truly is, but I am betting that he will be able to blow that pitch right by big leaguers because of his great vertical movement and approach angle.
As for his other offerings, his slider looks like his best secondary, but the true shape of it is hard to make out just by watching fuzzy minor league video. It appears to profile as a mid-80’s power breaking ball with bat missing qualities. He also possesses a changeup with strong movement that he uses to lefties. For a visual on how it all plays together, here’s a clip of him dismantling a hitter in just four pitches:
Colby White (@Colbywhite5) struck out the side in a perfect 9th yesterday. He currently has 36 Ks in 16.1 IP this season. Check out the last batter of his 10-pitch inning from last night! pic.twitter.com/m692Ibg3C4— Rays Player Development (@RaysPlayerDev) June 9, 2021
The success of Colby’s 2021 season cannot be overstated and I am ecstatic to see what he has in store for us in 2022. White never threw more than two innings in an outing last season and the most batters he faced in a game was 11. It’s safe to say that the Rays view him as a reliever, but maybe he’s the kind of guy that can give you more than one inning if necessary.
As for expectations, the Rays were ultra aggressive with his promotions last season and I don’t see any reason for that to change this year. Barring injury, White will very likely be throwing innings in the big leagues in 2022.
There is also a non-zero chance that White is able to dominate in spring training and make the MLB opening day roster. In response to this you might say something like: “How are the Rays going to make room for White on a jam-packed roster?” While that is a valid point, I will note that the Rays will likely see multiple 40-man spots open up during spring training, as that is when injured players are able to be transferred to the 60-day IL, thus removing them from the 40-man.
While we won’t know more about each player’s specific situation until Spring, The Rays have a number of players (particularly pitchers) who are candidates to be added to the 60-day IL once eligible. Earlier in the offseason, DRaysBay writer Jared Ward did a good job breaking down the injured Rays players which you can find here.
Maybe Colby White is the type of player the Rays will look to in order to fill those roster voids at the end of the camp. If not, I’d imagine he will begin the 2021 season in AAA with the chance for a big league call-up as soon as the opportunity arises.